Lewis Hamilton has downplayed McLaren-Mercedes' struggles during testing at Jerez de la Frontera this week as he languished towards the bottom of the timesheets, stressing that it is 'just testing' and predicting a strong challenge from Toyota this year - as well as Force India.

The new MP4-24 has not lapped any faster than fourth-quickest on any of the four days at the southern Spanish circuit to-date - in the hands of alternately Hamilton, team-mate Heikki Kovalainen and test driver Pedro de la Rosa - and on three of them it has wound up last-but-one on the timing screens, with only the troubled Renault and newly-launched Force India behind it.

What's more, on Wednesday the reigning Formula 1 World Champion was delayed by problems fitting the rear suspension and subsequently suffered a fiery technical failure in the morning, followed by a spin in the rain later on. Those combined woes saw him end up almost one-and-a-half seconds adrift of the pace-setting Renault of former team-mate Fernando Alonso - and only just over a tenth clear of propping up the order.

Winter testing is notorious for giving misleading readings, however, with no one truly sure of how much fuel any of their rivals are running or with what configurations, and Hamilton insisted there is no undue cause for concern as he prepares to launch the defence of his hard-won crown in the curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne in little over three weeks' time.

"We're just testing," the 24-year-old is quoted as saying by the Daily Telegraph. "Who knows? We'll find out when we get to the first race.

"This was my first day with Ferrari being at the same track, so for me it looks very similar to every other year - 2007 and 2008.

"Just from looking at the times, it looks like [Toyota] are doing quite a good job - but I think a lot of the teams are doing quite good jobs. The Renault doesn't look bad, the BMW doesn't look bad, so there are quite a lot of teams looking pretty impressive at the moment.

"I haven't arrived here thinking I'm world champion; I've arrived thinking I've got a great team I need to push as hard as I can. We've got a lot of work to do to make sure we're ready for Australia."

The sport's youngest-ever title-winner also added his voice to that of recently-retired Red Bull Racing ace-cum-BBC F1 pundit David Coulthard in tipping newly Mercedes-supplied Force India to be the surprise package of the season.



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