Lewis Hamilton has turned up the heat in his new partnership with Formula One world championship successor Jenson Button a notch, by omitting the Briton from a list of potential rivals next season.
Although the slip was probably unintentional, Hamilton told Germany's Sport Bild
that he feared drivers from outside the McLaren team would be his biggest challengers as he seeks to reclaim that F1 crown he lost to Button in the recently completed 2009 season. The two Britons will join forces at McLaren from the end of the year, giving the Woking team its first all-British line-up since the early 1980s - and the first pairing of British world champions for 40 years.
With minor rule changes again giving the teams much to think about over the winter, Hamilton admitted that it would be hard to predict exactly who would be out front when the new season starts in Bahrain next March, but pointed to Button's biggest 2009 rivals as the likely opposition.
"It's hard to say who is still in front but, in any case, Red Bull, Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel [should be there]." he noted, "Above all, Sebastian has improved enormously. He will be strong, just like the car."
Looking beyond the drivers who finished second and fourth behind Button in 2009, Hamilton admitted that one of F1's recent powerhouses would likely return, and also foresaw that the reigning champion team - now in league with former McLaren partner Mercedes-Benz - would also figure.
"Ferrari will come back," the Briton insisted, "With [Fernando] Alonso and [Felipe] Massa, they may have the strongest driver duo. And Brawn - or Mercedes Grand Prix - will be there too, of course..."
Hamilton appeared confident that he would be able to carry the form he and McLaren showed in the second half of 2009 into the new campaign, buoyed by the transformation that made the struggling MP4-24 into a racewinner.
"I love F1 more than ever, especially in the second half of the season, when the team has done a fantastic job," he admitted, "In the last few races, I have raced as never before in my career. Qualifying in Abu Dhabi especially was a very good lap, possibly even the best lap of my life.
"Before [the improvement], it was character-building season for me. But I have become mature and wise in my decisions, particularly in dealing with the fame and the pressure of always being in the public eye. It was good, but different, for me that I was not so crucial, but I could therefore concentrate on the job.