Formula 1’s power unit restrictions will make it “very hard” for Mercedes to reduce Ferrari’s straight-line speed advantage this season, says Lewis Hamilton.

Ferrari had the highest top speeds during qualifying for the Bahrain Grand Prix and its apparent power advantage appeared to translate to China, with Sebastian Vettel finishing comfortably clear in FP1 before Mercedes hit back in second practice.

According to team GPS data traces, Ferrari is gaining nearly four tenths of a second alone on the long back straight in Shanghai’s third sector. F1’s current rules only allow drivers to use three engines per season before incurring a grid penalty, and Hamilton believes that will make it difficult for Mercedes to reduce the gap.

“On the engine side of things it’s very, very hard to make big gains without taking risks, especially with the regulations that we have these days, with the small amount of engine and turbos,” Hamilton explained.

“Those steps are harder to come by. It’s probably a combination of a couple of things. But closing that gap on straight-line speed, it’s not something that you’ll see close up particularly quickly.”

Hamilton, who has admitted to struggling with the balance of his W10 during Friday practice compared to Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas - who set the pace in FP2 – hopes Mercedes can fight for victory outright in China, after profiting from Charles Leclerc’s engine woes in Bahrain.

“Obviously we didn’t expect the performance we had at the first race,” he said. “We didn’t expect to see what we saw in the second race and so still it’s only the third race - it feels like it’s been a long time already - but it’s difficult to know.

“I hope that we don’t have to rely on reliability and I hope that we have a much closer race. I think qualifying was OK in the last race but the race was a big, big delta and I hope this weekend it’s closer between us because this is a great track to have a real race so the closer it is the better.”

Ferrari won the opening two races of the 2018 season but it is Mercedes that has taken consecutive one-two finishes so far in Australia and Bahrain, despite Ferrari appearing to have the quicker package.

Asked if he felt Ferrari’s latest challenge is its strongest for years, Hamilton replied: “It’s difficult. You look at Melbourne, and they weren’t anywhere.

“But in last [year’s title] race, they started off really strong. They won the first race, they won the second race, so you can’t say they were stronger this year than last year.

“They’ve obviously got a great package, as they did last year. You could say a stronger package than they had last year.

“I don’t think we’ve got a worse package. I think we’ve got a really good package as well, but they’ve definitely stepped up this year.”

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