Formula One: Hamilton relishing stiffer challenge in season-opener

Three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton leaving the garage during testing near Barcelona. He and new team-mate Valtteri Bottas are said to be getting along well.
Three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton leaving the garage during testing near Barcelona. He and new team-mate Valtteri Bottas are said to be getting along well. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

New cars pack a punch with speed and more G-force as Ferrari, Red Bull close in on Mercs

MELBOURNE • Lewis Hamilton will look to put his stamp on the new Formula One season at this week's Australian Grand Prix, as he seeks to regain the world title following the shock retirement of team-mate and reigning champion Nico Rosberg.

Ten years after his F1 debut at Albert Park, the Briton arrives at the downtown circuit as the leading light of a sport now under new management and featuring wider and faster cars.

Hamilton, 32, was beaten to last year's title by Mercedes team-mate Rosberg, who quit the sport five days later, citing the intense pressures of competing.

This year, he will be facing renewed competition from Ferrari and Red Bull, who are expected to close the gap on dominant Mercedes, as well his new team-mate Valtteri Bottas of Finland.

Hamilton is revelling in the new generation of quicker cars, which coincides with American group Liberty Media's takeover and the exit of long-time ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone.

"I'm finding the car is much more physical to drive than in the past," said Hamilton, who is seeking his fourth world title after victories in 2008, 2014 and 2015. "It's so much faster in the corners. The force you feel on your body and on your neck is much higher. I've got bruises and bumps where I've never really had them before."

A TRUE MONSTER

The force you feel on your body and on your neck is much higher. I've got bruises and bumps where I've never really had them before.

LEWIS HAMILTON, who is going for his fourth F1 crown, on the powerful cars.

An overhaul of technical regulations has ushered in wider cars with broader tyres, which are expected to be noisier and provide faster racing, but also put greater physical demands on the drivers.

"Having spoken to the drivers, these machines are violent - just like Formula One cars should be," said Mercedes chief Toto Wolff.

"The target with these new regulations was to make this generation of F1 cars the quickest in the history of the sport.

"And looking at the results from testing, we're well on the way to achieving that. It's something that's never been done before and that's a radical change."

Hamilton and Rosberg had a fractious relationship in the Mercedes garage, but Wolff added that the Briton and Bottas were "in a great place".

"They have a respectful and friendly relationship, from what we've seen in our team briefings so far," he added.

Bottas has yet to win a race but he is confident of improving on his best finish of fifth around the Melbourne circuit, which he achieved with his former team, Williams, in 2014.

"It's a big challenge and I'll definitely need to prove myself to a lot of people and my team that I deserve the place," the 27-year-old said. "But I see it very positively. It's a great opportunity for my career to fight for the wins and even for the championship."

While the Silver Arrows have dominated F1, winning the drivers' and constructors' titles over the last three years, pre-season testing pointed to other teams pushing hard.

Ferrari topped the time sheets at testing in Barcelona, with Kimi Raikkonen fastest ahead of team-mate Sebastien Vettel.

"It's impossible to predict anything," said Vettel, a four-time champion with Red Bull from 2010 to 2013. "Even the tests in Barcelona only give a basic idea of where you stand.

"It is only in the first race that you will know how well you and the others have worked over the winter. We will only get real clarity after three or four races."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2017, with the headline 'Hamilton relishing stiffer challenge'. Print Edition | Subscribe