Lewis Hamilton has singled out Ferrari as the team to beat heading towards the F1 2010 curtain-raising Bahrain Grand Prix at Sakhir in just over a week's time – and tipped plucky minnows Sauber and Force India to launch a surprise challenge for the leading positions.
The common paddock perception is that four teams – McLaren-Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull Racing and Mercedes Grand Prix – will share the majority of the silverware this year, with little to choose between the front-running quartet on the basis of pre-season testing.
Whilst not disputing that contention, 2008 F1 World Champion Hamilton predicts one of the four might begin proceedings with a slight edge over the others – and suggests that it would be unwise to dismiss the threat of some of the sport's traditionally less competitive entrants.
“I think team-wise, you've got us, Ferrari, Red Bull, Mercedes, Sauber and Force India,” the British star reflected, speaking during a special Vodafone McLaren-Mercedes phone-in session. “For me, those look like the most competitive teams, and in terms of the drivers you've obviously got Felipe [Massa] and Fernando [Alonso], you've got me and Jenson [Button – team-mate], probably [Sebastian] Vettel and Mark Webber – because obviously they've got a quick car – and Michael [Schumacher] and Nico [Rosberg]. It's really difficult to say who is the most competitive out of all of them, but at the moment the Ferrari looks the fastest, I think.
“On the first day of testing in Barcelona, [McLaren's long-run pace] wasn't particularly impressive – we weren't fast enough compared to the Ferraris – but obviously on the last day we made some improvements to the car and I did a race distance, so you can guess what kind of fuel load I was on, and the balance of the car and the times I did were very competitive. I think they were probably the most competitive of the day, so that was a big boost of confidence for me, but still I think the Mercedes is very competitive over its long runs and so is the Ferrari.
“It's going to be harder this year to keep the car on the track – it's probably a lot easier to make mistakes with the tyres dropping off so fast and graining. It's different too in that before, usually you could jump people in the pit-stops, but I don't know what kind of role the pit-stops are going to play this year. It's not about who goes longest now – it's about who stops before the other one to jump them. It's kind of a different strategy, but I think it's going to end up giving us some good racing.”
Indeed, with the ability to successfully manage tyre wear an increasingly important factor in an age in which refuelling is no more – meaning cars will begin races fully-laden with fuel – the Stevenage-born ace is well aware that an overly aggressive approach behind the wheel will only cause the performance to rapidly drop off, necessitating more pit-stops and significantly hampering a drive's chances of registering a good result.
That variable is likely to alter from circuit-to-circuit, but one common factor in every race will be the presence of record-breaking seven-time F1 World Champion and grand prix legend Schumacher competing against him, handing Hamilton – who debuted in the top flight immediately after his German rival's 'retirement' three years ago – an opportunity that he never thought he would have, that of testing his mettle against the most successful driver the sport has ever known.
Palpably excited about the prospect of getting back down to business again and the 'buzz' he will receive from walking back into the paddock in Bahrain, the 24-year-old will gain an even bigger buzz, you can't help but feel, should he manage to get the better of 'Schumi' in a no holds-barred, mano-a-mano duel.
“It's a real boost to have such a legend back,” he enthused, “and I'm excited just to be on the same track as him. Hopefully if we're competing up at the front, competing with Felipe and Fernando too, that will be fantastic for me. In 2007 we were competing with Felipe and Kimi [Raikkonen], and now to have Fernando [at Ferrari] I think is really going to make for a serious battle and another fun battle, because he's another incredible driver. It's good to see those guys back up there. I'm sure at some stage we'll have some good battles, and I'm looking forward to that.”