One is a double world champion, the other a troubled talent sidetracked by off-track problems in 2011, but it is the latter that one of their biggest rivals rates more highly. Or at least that was the case ahead of last season....

Lewis Hamilton may not have always seen eye-to-eye with Fernando Alonso during the solitary year they spent together at McLaren in 2007, but it is a sign of their improving relationship that the Spaniard has rated his former nemesis ahead of reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel. However, that was the case before the German won his second world title, and Hamilton's fall from grace in 2011 may have caused the Spaniard to change his view.

Hamilton has struggled to repeat his title-winning form of 2008, his second season in the top flight, and was involved in various incidents on track and in the stewards' office throughout last season. While he sank to fifth in the points race, and was out-gunned by McLaren team-mate Jenson Button, Vettel's star has risen hand-in-hand with Red Bull's ascendancy to the top of the F1 tree over the past three years, becoming the youngest back-to-back champion since Alonso repeated as number one in 2005-06.

It may be because of Red Bull's superiority that Alonso came out with the view that Vettel still has some way to go before being a match for Hamilton, until it is realised, as respected scribe Joe Saward points out, that he was actually speaking before the German's second championship success.

"I consider Hamilton to be a very quick driver, aggressive and totally focused," the Spaniard was quoted in a book produced for sponsor Phillip Morris, "All he's interested in is winning. Nothing else. A really talented driver.

"In my opinion Sebastian hasn't quite got to that level year. I know that he is a world champion and that he'll win another championship in 2011, but that is the way it is. For me, he's just slightly below Lewis's standard."

Of course, Hamilton's chances of returning to the top of the pile will also hinge largely on McLaren producing a car that can prove competitive with Red Bull - and, Alonso hopes, Ferrari - from the start of the 2012 campaign, which kicks off with pre-season testing in Spain on 7 February. The Spaniard, however, has already warned the F1 fraternity to expect more from his rival even if the 2012 car isn't the best in the field.

"Hamilton did not have a super season this year, who knows whether it was due to the Pirelli tyres or the fact that, with blown diffusers now, driving has changed," the Spaniard mused in the closing stages of the 2011 campaign, "On top of that, Button is having a great year. All of this concurred to give the impression that [Hamilton]'s season hasn't been so good.

"But let's consider India, when he took second place in qualifying. It's like soccer: if Real Madrid or Barcelona are not performing particularly well on a given season, that does not mean that they're not top league. In fact, at the next winter testing, [Hamilton] will be the only one I'll be watching closely. The other guys can win if they've got the best car, but he's the one who's able to clinch a championship with a car that's not the best."

All three frontrunning teams have now revealed when their new cars will break cover, with RBR announcing an online launch the day before track action gets underway. McLaren and Ferrari will unveil their contenders at their Woking and Maranello bases on 1 February and 3 February respectively.

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