World champion Lewis Hamilton has warned his Mercedes team that they will need to improve to stay in front of rivals Ferrari and Red Bull when the new season starts in Australia on Sunday.
Hamilton is odds-on favourite for the 2018 drivers’ title with bookmakers, who offer even shorter prices on Mercedes winning a fifth successive constructors’ championship.
But he said: “Every year we have to take it to another level. Last year, Red Bull was a second or so behind at the first race and at the last race they were right there with us. Their rate of development was a little bit steeper than everyone else’s.”
Four-time champion Hamilton is convinced that Ferrari and Red Bull have quietly closed the gap over the winter, while being only too happy to let him and Mercedes bear the burden of expectation.
“Everyone is trying to hype someone up and we are the perfect target because we are the world champions. But I think the pressure is divided among all of us,” added the British racer.
“Red Bull seem to have done a great job on their car. It should be a lot quicker this weekend and they’ve got two great drivers. Then you have Ferrari who were there in the real fight last year. It was no walkover, that’s for sure, and this year we expect them to be on it too.”
Red Bull illustrated their late-season progress with two wins in the final six races of 2017 and Daniel Ricciardo is hopeful of underlining that improvement with a strong opening race on home soil.
“Every year we have worked hard to build a fast car, but come testing we have not really had a lot to show for it. This winter we had a bit more,” said Ricciardo.
“For us to have a strong weekend, however, would set a statement for the year and show that we would be fighting for the championship. It would be awesome to get off on the right foot.”
Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, meanwhile, believes McLaren can achieve a top-five finish in Melbourne despite their switch from Honda to Renault engines failing to resolve long-standing reliability problems.
“I think we should be optimistic,” said the Spaniard. “We had some reliability issues in testing but all of them are fixed now and the team did an amazing job in the past two or three weeks to have the car 100 per cent for Australia. I think being in the points, being close to the top five, that will be the best thing we can do to start the season.”
Practice starts on Friday morning, with qualifying on Saturday evening ahead of the grand prix on Sunday.