Defending champion Lewis Hamilton has dismissed the idea of putting statement wins on the board early in the Formula One season, saying his Mercedes team has plenty of work to do on its car ahead of the Australian Grand Prix.
Briton Hamilton, the winner of four of the last five titles, believes the Silver Arrows have a battle on their hands this season against Ferrari, whose car showed impressive pace and reliability during winter testing.
Hamilton’s path to his fifth championship started slowly last year, with his first win not coming until the fourth race in Azerbaijan.
However, he said he was only focused on getting his W10 car across the finish line at Albert Park on Sunday, with the championship unlikely to be decided in the early rounds.
“It’s a long season, so I don’t particularly feel that (pressure to win),” he told reporters at Albert Park on Thursday.
“The most important thing, I think, is really about finishing races and analysing and making sure you get as many race points as you can, of course.
“It’s difficult to know what everyone’s doing. Naturally we won’t fully know until we get out in the car tomorrow and come qualifying you get a better picture.
“We said that we had work to do, we weren’t talking BS, we have work to do.”
Mercedes are one of only two teams in Formula One this season who have maintained the same driver lineup, with Finn Valtteri Bottas to partner Hamilton for a third successive year.
Where Hamilton’s partnership with retired 2016 champion Nico Rosberg was fraught with tension, the 34-year-old has enjoyed a much smoother ride with Bottas, who has not proved as competitive as his German predecessor.
Hamilton naturally was keen for continuity on the driving front, at least.
“We have a great pairing and the contribution from Valtteri and I together works, it’s worked well for years and there’s no reason to change it,” he said.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In terms of the team, we’ve got some incredible people in the team, and the energy is really, really inspiring to see so many people so pumped.”
Leading a jet-setting lifestyle and boasting a number of celebrity friends, Hamilton had a typically busy off-season but found time to do some sky-diving in Qatar on the way to Australia.
He said he had also done a bit of surfing but not had the courage to test Australia’s breaks.
“I wanted to do it here but I couldn’t find a netted area to go. I just can’t go where the sharks are, man,” he said.
“Every Australian I meet, they’re like, ‘Nah, nah, you’ll be alright … If a shark comes up to you, punch it in the face’.”
Vettel says new team mate Leclerc ‘free to race’
Sebastian Vettel said on Thursday new Ferrari team mate Charles Leclerc will be “free to race” from the start of the Formula One season and the German rejected suggestions his bid for a fifth world championship title would take precedence.
Ferrari’s new team principal Mattia Binotto said earlier in the year that Vettel, as the team’s “champion”, would be given priority over Leclerc in certain racing situations, though he later clarified the drivers would be “free to fight”.
Vettel, bidding for a third successive win in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, said testily that he expected no special treatment.
“I think it’s very clear, and I think Mattia also made it very clear, we are free to race each other,” he told reporters at Albert Park on Thursday.
“I think Charles will do his best to help himself, to help the team and that’s the same for me, I’ll do the best to help myself and to help the team.
“In the end we are racing for Ferrari and that means we will try to get Ferrari back to where we’ve been trying to get it back to the last couple of years.
“That’s the main priority and the rest, it’s a long, long season and I think it’s a bit pointless at this point to start pointing out certain scenarios.”
Monegasque Leclerc, who drove for Sauber last year, has swapped race seats with Kimi Raikkonen, with the Finnish former champion now at the rebranded Alfa Romeo team.
Leclerc said Binotto had also told him he would be free to race Vettel, albeit with the qualification that the German would be given priority in certain race situations.
The highly rated 21-year-old declined to elaborate as to what situations would apply but was unfazed about the prospect of having to play second fiddle to Vettel.
“I’m still young but I’m pretty sure that you always learn with our sport,” he said in the paddock.
“On the feedback side there are still a lot of things I can learn from Seb especially because he’s very experienced and very strong in that point.
“So I’ve got a good example next to me.”
Ferrari, runners-up in the constructors championship the last two years, have arrived with plenty of buzz around their SF90 car, which was fast and reliable during winter testing.
Pundits have tipped the Scuderia to give Mercedes, winners of the last five driver’s and constructors’ titles, a genuine challenge in the coming championship.
Ferrari’s last constructors’ title came in 2008.
Vettel was also bullish about his car’s quality compared to last year’s leadup to Melbourne, where he snatched a lucky win over Lewis Hamilton courtesy of a safety car deployment.
“In this regard we are more prepared, the car seems to work fine and there are no problems at this stage,” he said.
“But having said that, obviously, we can’t do better than last year’s result. So we’ve got a tough week ahead of us.
“Always at the start you’re a bit nervous, you don’t know exactly where you are, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Williams problems give Kubica little time to soak up comeback
More than eight years after his last Formula One race, Robert Kubica is eager to step back into the cockpit but the Pole has been too busy to soak up his comeback at the Australian Grand Prix due to problems with the Williams car.
By any measure, Williams have had a chaotic preparation for the season-opener, with technical director Paddy Lowe taking “a leave of absence” after they failed to finish their new car in time for the start of testing in Barcelona and turned up two days late.
The car was the slowest on track when it did appear, adding to the woes of an outfit who finished last in 2018 and have not won a race since 2012.
Kubica’s inspiring comeback, eight years after a crash in a rally in Italy partially severed his right arm, has been a rare good news story for once formidable Williams.
Not that the 34-year-old has had much time to enjoy it.
“Emotions? To be honest, I’ve not really had a lot of time to think about them,” he told reporters at Albert Park on Thursday.
“I’ve been really focused on the job, focused on the things to do, trying to learn as much as you can with the new F1 since I was racing here last time.
“We didn’t have a perfect start for winter testing, so there are a lot of things to be checked.”
His nation’s first Formula One driver, Kubica claimed the Canadian Grand Prix with now defunct BMW-Sauber in 2008 and was one of the series’ most highly regarded racers before his accident in the leadup to the 2011 season.
After extensive surgery, Kubica returned to motor sport in 2012 and enjoyed some success in the World Rally Championship before returning to F1 as a reserve driver for Williams last year.
Fans waved huge banners for the Pole at the season launch at Melbourne’s Federation Square, and Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo led a tribute during the pre-race media conference on Thursday.
“Robert mentioned he had a pretty long ‘winter break’. I don’t think we all know what the extent of what he’s been through to get back here,” Renault driver Ricciardo said.
“So I just think it’s awesome to see him back … It’s just a testament to his character,” he added, leading a round of applause from drivers, including Mercedes’ champion Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.
Formula One has introduced a new rule awarding a championship point to the driver that can put in the fastest lap on race day — so long as they finish in the top 10.
Kubica remarked ruefully that it would probably not help Williams much.
“It is a difficult period but we have to make sure we are doing everything we can in the current situation,” he said.
“There’s no point wasting energy and time thinking of difficult moments … We have to make sure we maximise our opportunities.”