MELBOURNE • World champion Lewis Hamilton suspects Ferrari are holding something back heading into tomorrow's Australian Formula One race in Melbourne.
The Briton and his Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg swept all before them last season, winning 16 of the 19 races as the German constructor locked up back-to-back world titles.
And the pair finished far ahead of Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel, who was third with three victories, in the drivers' championship.
But the gap has been closing steadily, and Hamilton believes Ferrari have inched much closer than Vettel has been indicating.
"This year, the whole pack looks like it's a little bit closer but personally, I think they (Ferrari) have something up their sleeve for this weekend," Hamilton said in Melbourne on Thursday.
"The Ferraris are going to be a lot closer than they talk about. They have arrived on the low, but are going to deliver high."
A GOOD CHANCE
I think we made a step over winter.
But whether that is big enough or not we need to wait for the first couple of races and see, but for sure our target is to turn things around.
SEBASTIAN VETTEL, Ferrari driver, on his team's hopes of catching up with Mercedes.
Much of the talk leading into the new season is whether there are any teams capable of taking some of the 21 races off Hamilton and Rosberg.
"We have (enough to trouble Mercedes this year)," four-time world champion Vettel said on Thursday.
"Obviously, the question is whether we are ready in time but we are on a good track, we are making progress, we did so last year and I think we made a step over winter.
"But whether that is big enough or not we need to wait for the first couple of races and see, but for sure our target is to turn things around."
Ferrari ended pre-season testing with the fastest lap times and Vettel believes the Scuderia's new car could challenge Mercedes for the title.
Both teams notched up plenty of laps at the Barcelona test, with Mercedes showing itself the most reliable car and Ferrari setting encouraging times.
"They have been very quick for sure," said Rosberg of Ferrari's pace. "We know more or less where we are compared to Ferrari, which is why I say for sure it is close. But we are not sure if we are ahead or behind."
The signs are that Ferrari are closer this year. Last year, they were a second off the pace at the first race of the season and they still won three races and made a fight of it, scoring more podiums than they did in 2013 and 2014 combined.
This year, it already looks as if they have reduced Mercedes' advantage. But the key for Ferrari will be whether they can qualify well.
Their record on Saturdays has been pretty woeful in the last few years, with only five poles this decade, whether it was Sebastian Vettel or Fernando Alonso leading the team.
Last season they were closer, but still on average over the season 0.689sec behind Mercedes.
Whenever Ferrari made it on to the front row last year, they had a chance. They put Mercedes under pressure, exposed some weaknesses and were able to get in the mix.
If, as it appears, they are that bit closer again this year, Vettel could well make things awkward for Mercedes.
Ferrari would also love Vettel's team-mate Kimi Raikkonen to join the German in taking the fight to Mercedes.
It looks as if the car suits Raikkonen better again this year, just as it did last year compared to 2014. But Vettel had about 0.4sec on Raikkonen last year and it is hard to imagine that gap will close much.
One thing that could help Ferrari is the increased freedom on tyre choice this year, with three types of tyres rather than two available each weekend, and teams able within restrictions to choose how many of each they want.
In the past, Ferrari have tended to do better on softer tyres, so this could potentially help them and enable them to look at doing something different strategically.
Ferrari have chosen for their drivers exactly the same mix of tyres as Rosberg for this weekend - with Hamilton the one out on a limb in choosing only one set of mediums and an extra pair of softs.
This offers Ferrari a chance to do one fewer pit stop than Hamilton in Melbourne, which could spice things up a bit.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
F1 AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX
Practice 3 (10.55am) & qualifying (1.30pm), Singtel TV Ch114 & StarHub Ch208