Lewis Hamilton will try to lay down a marker in this week’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix as he sets his sights on beating fierce rival Sebastian Vettel to a fifth F1 world title.
Mercedes’s reigning world champion and Ferrari’s Vettel can both join the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio as five-time world title-holders this year, second only to Michael Schumacher’s seven.
Vettel swept home in last year’s opening race against Hamilton in Melbourne before the British ace went on to land the championship with two races to spare from the German.
Ferrari once again have sizzled in pre-season testing along with Red Bull, pointing to a potential three-team assault on this season’s constructors’ title.
But Hamilton, who is reportedly about to sign a new contract with Mercedes which could earn him up to £40 million per year, says at 33 he’s motivated to blaze on.
“It doesn’t feel like the start of the final chapter, and I don’t feel as though I am about to embark on my last contract,” Hamilton told reporters.
“I want to arrive in Melbourne fit. I want to hit my target weight. I want to kill it through practice, get pole position and I want to win the race convincingly.
“I don’t know how long this feeling is going to last when I go into a new season, but as long as I am still feeling like this I will keep going.”
Hamilton has won twice in Melbourne, in 2008 and 2015. But Vettel, also chasing his third Australian victory, is in a similarly feisty mood ahead of the new season.
“We know what we need to do,” Vettel said. “There are lessons that were obvious, some were a bit more hidden, but I’m sure we’ll dig deep enough and try to find all of them.
“We are completely fired up.”
‘It’s going to be close’
Hamilton also expects the Red Bulls of Australia’s Daniel Ricciardo and Dutchman Max Verstappen to close the gap during the 21-stop season, based on winter testing.
“I think Red Bull are the fastest at the moment, potentially,” he said.
“I’m super-confident in my team and the work they’ve done, I just think it’s going to be close.”
Starting the new campaign in a home GP places Ricciardo under extra pressure as he bids to become the race’s first Australian winner since Alan Jones in 1980.
“Starting the F1 season in Australia means there is so much hype and so much build-up, with me being the only Australian on the grid there is extra attention, extra questioning and expectation,” Ricciardo said.
“Melbourne in 2017 was a combination of my errors and some misfortune, I crashed in qualifying and then we had a technical issue for the race. So 2018 is definitely time to get what we deserve in Melbourne.”
The new season also marks the introduction of governing body FIA’s new mandatory safety halo head protection device, which has drawn ire from some teams.
“I’m not impressed with the whole thing and if you give me a chainsaw I would take it off,” bristled Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff.
“I think we need to look after the driver’s safety, but what we have implemented is aesthetically not appealing and we need to come up with a solution that simply looks better.”
FIA chief Jean Todt hit back, saying the measure had been introduced to save lives and at the request of drivers’ body the GPDA.
“I am amazed to hear some people say: ‘OK, motor racing is dangerous, if it happens, it happens,’” Todt said.
“Can you imagine how we would all feel if something happened and if we would have had the halo it would not have happened?”
Although a majority of drivers are in favour of the device, some have said they are opposed to it. Others have raised objections about the difficulty of getting in and out of the car and identifying drivers on the track.