MELBOURNE, Australia — Faster cars and fiercer competition are the great expectations of the new regulations in Formula One, yet the championship outlook hasn't altered much ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
Lewis Hamilton remains the hot favourite to win another title for Mercedes.
Hamilton won 10 GP events last season and was close to claiming his fourth drivers' title but was narrowly beaten by his teammate Nico Rosberg, who secured Mercedes a third consecutive championship and then retired.
While Hamilton talked about wanting more drivers competing for the title, and even tipped Ferrari to be quickest this weekend, he's already lining up a victory he thinks would be unprecedented.
"I don't believe (any) team has won back-to-back through rule regulation changes," Hamilton said Thursday during the first official news conference ahead of Sunday's race. "So that's our goal as a team. We're here to win. We're here to do what no-one else has done.
"I have every belief in my team that we can do that."
Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel won four consecutive season titles from 2010-13 while he was racing for Red Bull, so he knows what it's like to be in Hamilton's position. He has no doubt who is favourite this season, regardless of the rule changes that dictated wider tires, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce and which are expected to make the heavier cars faster.
"Obviously Mercedes has been in a very, very strong form the last three years and even with changes to the rules and regulations, if the team is strong then they will build a strong car the year after, no matter what they do," Vettel said. "It is very clear who is the favourite .
"For all of us sitting here we are obviously trying our best to catch up. As the season goes on obviously, I'm sure the cars will have big progression."
Ferrari had good results in the eight days of pre-season testing, and Hamilton predicted Vettel and former champion Kimi Raikkonen would have the fastest cars in the first practice sessions Friday and Saturday.
"I see Ferrari being the quickest at the moment — and I think they'll definitely be the favourites ," said Hamilton, who was joined at Mercedes this season by former Williams driver Valterri Bottas. "It's interesting to see, Sebastian is usually a lot more hype. I can tell he's trying to keep a lid on it. But their pace was obviously great in testing."
Hamilton said he couldn't judge the pace of the Red Bulls in testing, saying they were "quite far behind" and he didn't see many upgrades to the cars.
"I'm assuming they're bringing something new," he said, "which I'm excited to see."
Daniel Ricciardo finished as the highest-ranked of the non-Mercedes drivers last season, winning the Malaysian GP and placing third in the season standings. He concedes Hamilton will start favourite , but is hoping for a shakeup at the top.
"I think for everyone it's like when Red Bull were dominating a few years ago — everyone wanted to see someone else win," Ricciardo said. "It's natural that people like change.
"For us drivers, not being in Mercedes, we want to see change as well. Even for the fact to have more cars fighting for the win makes it more exciting."
Hamilton wanted more frequent changes to the regulations, to keep the cars getting faster and the competition "spicier."
That's something on which all the leading drivers could agree.
If Hamilton "wins a race against four of us as opposed to maybe just his teammate I think that reward is bigger as well," said Ricciardo, who is aiming to be the first Australian to win the Australian GP since it became part of the world championship in 1985.
"If you can win against more ... that feeling of self-accomplishment is greater. Ferrari showed good pace in testing. If they can take a few points away as well it kind of opens up the championship over the long time."
John Pye, The Associated Press