LONDON • Lewis Hamilton suspects Red Bull may have an upgrade and consequently be the fastest car on the Formula One grid at next week's season-opener in Australia.
Mercedes' four-time world champion, the bookmakers' favourite for a fifth title, told reporters on Wednesday that Red Bull could be the team to watch come March 25 in Melbourne.
"I think this year is going to be exciting, because last year there was a big difference between teams in the beginning, and then they got closer," the Briton said at an event for title sponsor and fuel partner Petronas in Turin.
"But this year it starts this close and then it's going to overlap, and separate, and overlap during the year, as people are developing.
"Because we don't bring upgrades at the same time, I think Red Bull will bring something at the first race, which will be interesting to see. I think Red Bull are the fastest at the moment, potentially. They have some sort of upgrade coming, of some magnitude, two-to-four tenths (of a second) or something like that. That's what I heard."
Ferrari set the fastest laps in pre-season testing last week but both Mercedes and Red Bull were more focused on long runs and reliability than performance in Barcelona.
Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo said that the RB14 would likely undergo changes between testing and the start of the season's first race, with new "go-fast" parts to be added.
Hamilton added of Red Bull: "They always build a car that has lots of downforce. Their maximum downforce has always been more than everyone else's.
THREE FRONT RUNNERS
I think they both look strong. It depends on the early-season development. My feeling is it's going to be a three-team battle. That's how we're going to be at least to start the year.
VALTTERI BOTTAS, weighing up his rivals, Ferrari and Red Bull.
"But that doesn't always work everywhere. Some places where you have longer straights - because they're very slow on the straights, normally, but they're fast through the corners. This advantage shifts through the year.
"But I'm super confident in my team and the work they have done, I just think it's going to be close."
Hamilton's team-mate Valtteri Bottas said he was unsure if Red Bull or Ferrari would pose a bigger threat to Mercedes' constructors title, which they have won for four straight seasons.
"I think they both look strong," he said. "It depends on the early-season development. My feeling is it's going to be a three-team battle. That's how we're going to be, at least to start the year."
Ricciardo and Dutch team-mate Max Verstappen won only three races between them last year to Mercedes' 12 but finished the season strongly in third. Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel won the other five.
Meanwhile, Jean Todt, the president of the FIA (International Automobile Federation) has issued a robust defence of his organisation's decision to impose the Halo cockpit protection system on F1 cars this season.
Todt dismissed criticism from the Mercedes executive director, Toto Wolff, as "childish" and stressed that the FIA would not shy away from making difficult decisions in the interests of safety.
The Halo will make its race debut at the opening round in Melbourne but has attracted criticism on aesthetic grounds.
Wolff has said he would remove it with a chainsaw if given the opportunity but Todt rejected his stance.
"I will not react to whatever has been said. It is simply a childish game," he said.
"Last year we had 42 fatalities in motor racing. It's unacceptable. It's a human attitude to be reluctant on change.
"But once we know that the change, after a lot of testing, is good, we should implement it."
REUTERS, THE GUARDIAN