Following the curtain-raising outing of the new campaign, 2008 F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton has offered an assessment of his closest rivals, describing his former team-mate Fernando Alonso as the Alain Prost to his Ayrton Senna, and witheringly likening reigning title-winner Sebastian Vettel to British hero Nigel Mansell - only not quite as good.

Hamilton finished as runner-up to Vettel in the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne last weekend, and the common paddock consensus is that after so thoroughly dominating proceedings Down Under, the Red Bull Racing star is the hot favourite to defend his drivers' crown this year. The McLaren ace disagrees.

Harkening back to what was unquestionably the most successful and simultaneously destructive relationship in the Woking-based outfit's history - that between F1 legends Senna and Prost in the late 1980s - Hamilton suggests he and Alonso could just be the modern-day equivalents.

The pair were team-mates themselves at McLaren, of course, in 2007, and whilst relations between them never truly degenerated into the kind of bitter all-out warfare that characterised their predecessors' partnership, the then F1 rookie unsettled the double world champion to such an extent as to drive Alonso away from the team come season's end, two years before the Spaniard's contract was up for renewal.

"I don't think so," Hamilton told The Guardian, when asked if Vettel is his new 'nemesis' in the sport. "If he continues to have a car like he does now, then maybe, but I think when we get equal pace we will see some serious racing. Maybe he is the new Mansell? Not that I would rate him like I do Mansell.

"I think my nemesis and my closest rival will always be Fernando, just because of my history, when I started out. I see him as my Prost, if we were Prost and Senna. If you were to say 'choose a driver' [that I would like to be], I would clearly choose Ayrton. And maybe I would put him as Prost."

The Briton's put-down of Vettel - the man who in Abu Dhabi last November supplanted him as the youngest-ever F1 World Champion - only rubs salt into the wounds for Red Bull, a team he scathingly labelled in the build-up to Melbourne as merely 'a drinks company' with no real heritage in the sport, unlike McLaren or Ferrari.

Shifting his attentions towards the forthcoming Malaysian Grand Prix at Sepang, meanwhile, Hamilton is bullish about his prospects of really turning up the wick on RBR and taming the runaway RB7, lauding what he contends to be McLaren's superior in-season development pace and pointing to his expert nursing of his tyres at Albert Park, defying the critics who warn that his aggression behind the wheel will count against him in the new Pirelli era. Following a winter of discontent, he is, he insists, firmly back in the hunt.

"I think our pace was very, very good," the 26-year-old reflected of his Australian performance. "Everyone always says that I have a very aggressive driving style, but I proved that is not the case. I looked after my tyres even better than the guy next to me (Vettel), and I think I was able to attack.

"I could have gone for many more laps in the first stint. The only reason I had to pit is really because nowadays, stopping before them is always the best but if they have stopped before you, you need to stop immediately afterwards to defend and keep your position.

"The tyres were handling fantastic - they were great. The guys did a great job in the pit-stops. This is a great position, a great platform for us to push on into the next races. We have upgrades coming and we have a better understanding of the car and a better understanding of the tyres and strategy.

"Finally, I've got something I can fight with, something I can take the fight to the Bulls with. Malaysia is a massive downforce track so you're going to see Red Bull as quick if not quicker, but I have no doubts our car can be competitive as well."

Hamilton's conviction, however, received short shrift from Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner, who seems unconcerned by McLaren's sudden leap forward in form in the season-opener.

"Of course he would say that, otherwise he might as well not turn up for the next race," the Englishman told French sports newspaper L'?quipe, "but does he really believe it? McLaren has made great progress recently, it's a great team and they were always good at developing their car during a season - but we were better than them in this area last year, and we are determined to do the same again."



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