Lewis Hamilton is braced for a tougher rivalry with Sebastian Vettel than Nico Rosberg in what he believes will be the “best against the best” battling it out for this year’s Formula 1 crown.
It is four-time champion Vettel who holds the early advantage after a resurgent Ferrari delivered on their pre-season form to beat Hamilton’s Mercedes and win the opening race of the new season in Australia.
Vettel finished the best part of 10 seconds clear of Hamilton as Ferrari, who failed to win a single race last year, became the first team other than Mercedes to win the opening round of a season since 2013.
The 29-year-old German and Hamilton – three years his senior – are considered as the two finest drivers of their generation, and while Rosberg ended his long-running losing streak to Hamilton last year, he was never viewed as being in the same league.
In what could be viewed as a subtle barb at Rosberg, who watched Albert Park’s season opener from his lounge in Monte Carlo, Hamilton concurred.
“Definitely,” he replied when asked if he was anticipating a greater challenge from Vettel than Rosberg.
I have great respect (for Hamilton). He has proven to be one of the quickest drivers on the grid and I would love to have a close battle. It is a lot of fun to race for victories and a lot of fun to race against the best.Sebastian Vettel
“This year you are seeing the best against the best with the best drivers at the top.
“It would be great if we had Fernando Alonso up there, too, but it doesn’t look like that will happen any time soon.
“At least we have a great driver in Sebastian winning four titles after his incredible surge into Formula 1 and he will continue to be a force for many years to come.
“I am really grateful to have that fight with him, against Ferrari which is the next best team, and there is a top driver there, too. It has been a privilege to be racing in an era with him and finally we are in a period of time when we can actually have a real race.”
Vettel was equally complimentary. “I have great respect (for Hamilton),” said the German. “He has proven to be one of the quickest drivers on the grid and I would love to have a close battle. It is a lot of fun to race for victories and a lot of fun to race against the best.
“Right now it looks like we have equal machinery and I hope it stays that way.”
Formula 1 will hope it does, too. After three years of Mercedes dominance, Vettel triumphing at a sun-bathed Albert Park, in front of a near 100,000 crowd, is precisely what the sport and its new owners, Liberty Media, will have desired.
Hamilton appeared to be in charge after nailing the start and beating Vettel on the relatively short run down to turn one. Vettel kept Hamilton honest but as the Briton slowly began to eke out a lead over his rival, the result appeared a formality.
But when Hamilton pitted for fresh tyres at the end of lap 17 he rejoined behind Max Verstappen.
It was the worst possible scenario for the triple world champion, who could not find a way round the 19-year-old Red Bull driver.
Vettel stopped six laps later and emerged with Verstappen, and, crucially, Hamilton, behind him. Hamilton never came close to catching him.
“I could have won the race today but for some certain things we may have done better,” added Hamilton. “I gave it everything I could and you can’t win them all.
“It is going to be a close race this season but I truly believe we can beat them.”
Hamilton’s new team-mate, Valtteri Bottas, finished third while home favourite Daniel Ricciardo started two laps down after he got stuck in sixth gear en route to the grid before stopping with a mechanical issue midway through.
“Let’s get the f*** out of here,’’ a deflated Ricciardo said over the radio.