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Confident Hamilton predicts 'toughest battle yet' with Ferrari

AFP  |  Melbourne 

believes have the edge going into the opening Grand Prix of the season in Melbourne, but the Mercedes ace remains quietly confident in his bid for a sixth world title.

The 34-year-old, who was dominant in 2018, is gunning to go one better than legendary five-time champion and close in on Michael Schumacher's all-time record seven crowns.

But it was who sizzled in pre-season testing to emerge as the early favourites in Australia, with Hamilton claiming the Italian team could be up to half a second quicker around on Sunday.

"This is going to be the toughest battle yet," said the Briton, although Mercedes, who have won five drivers' and constructors' titles in a row, may not have shown their full hand yet.

- 'We've got the best team' -

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"We've got the best team around us. We have experience, it's no coincidence that we are world champions so we have to be diligent and stay balanced," added Hamilton, who has won twice in Melbourne, in 2008 and 2015.

"But as a for sure I have to figure out how can I pull more out, which I don't have the current answer for." His arch-rival swept home in an Australian thriller last year, getting a jump on Hamilton after Mercedes miscalculated a pit stop under

It was the four-time world champion's second straight win in and he followed it up with victory at before a resurgent and doggedly consistent Hamilton won 11 of the final 19 races to leave the frustrated German in his wake.

While Mercedes have retained Valtteri Bottas as Hamilton's partner this year, one of only two unchanged line-ups, Vettel has a new teammate in Charles who shifted from Sauber -- now branded Alfa Romeo -- in a swap for Kimi Raikkonen.

Vettel said he considered 21-year-old a "full rival" despite his relative inexperience and expressed confidence that Ferrari can clinch their first drivers' crown since Raikkonen's triumph in 2007.

"I hope that this year we get to have a lot of fun. Fun is to win a lot of races and then ultimately you are fighting for the championship," said the 31-year-old, who won four successive world championships at from 2010-2013.

"That's obviously what we want but at this point it is very far away." - Mercedes 'will be very strong' -

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The bookmakers have Vettel as clear favourite to win on Sunday although new suggested Mercedes were not as far off the pace as Hamilton suggested.

"I believe that Mercedes will be very strong in and I think that we would be completely wrong to believe that we are faster than them," he said.

Meanwhile Red Bull, powered by new engines, have high hopes that Max Verstappen, who finished fourth in the drivers' standings last year, can crash the

He has a new partner in Pierre Gasly after Daniel Ricciardo's shock decision to leave for

Three drivers make their race debuts in -- (McLaren), (Toro Rosso) and (Alfa Romeo) was a stand-in at two Grand Prix for Sauber in 2017, but is embarking on his first full season.

The race also marks the amazing comeback of Poland's Robert Kubica, who eight years ago partially severed his right arm in an accident that many believed would never see him driving a car again, let alone a machine.

He gets his opportunity at Williams, which finished last in the constructors' championship in 2018.

In a new concept this year, a bonus point will be awarded for the fastest lap during the race should the finish inside the top 10. A winner currently gets 25 points with 18, 15, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2 and one for the subsequent places.

A new set of regulations have also been introduced, featuring simpler front wings and brake ducts, in a bid to improve the quality of racing.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Wed, March 13 2019. 11:55 IST
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