Mercedes look to burst Ferrari's bubble in Melbourne

Ricciardo encouraged by Hulkenberg performance	
				Image by Joe Portlock  LAT

Two-time defending Australian Grand Prix champion Sebastian Vettel has warned his Ferrari is in even better shape than 12 months ago ahead of this weekend's Formula One season opener in Melbourne.

Under different management and after a positive winter testing, Ferrari have arrived in Melbourne with a fast auto and plenty of buzz, raising expectation of a genuine challenge to five years of Mercedes dominance.

"The change at the top of the team will have a positive effect on Sebastian", he said. "This year we are more prepared, our vehicle seems to work fine".

But Hamilton later told Sky Sports: "It might be closer than we think, it might be a bigger gap than we think".

Hamilton has won 51 of the past 100 grands prix for Mercedes and four of the past five championships. "Fun is to win a lot of races and then ultimately you are fighting for the championship", said the 31-year-old, who won four successive world championships at Red Bull from 2010-2013.

After a series of unlucky races at the start of the 2018 season, Bottas finished the year with no wins to Hamilton's 11.

Williams has endured an extremely tough pre-season after an equally hard 2018 campaign that saw previous drivers Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin score only seven points between them, but the Grove-based outfit are fielding an all-new line-up in Kubica and 2018 FIA Formula 2 champion George Russell.

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With 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen having switched to Alfa Romeo, the team formerly known as Sauber, Vettel's new partnership with highly-rated Monegasque driver Charles Leclerc will be under scrutiny.

Ferrari's impressive display in testing makes Valtteri Bottas believe Mercedes will have to fight to stay with their rivals in Australia.

Red Bull will be entering their new Honda era with Dutch hopeful Max Verstappen and Frenchman Pierre Gasly at the helm.

Mercedes struggled to keep pace with Ferrari in winter testing, and although the pre-season action has a reputation for delivering misleading clues as to the real pecking order, Hamilton added: "It wasn't hard to read, it was clear".

The team said on Tuesday it had expedited an upgrade for the RB15 auto in time for Sunday's race, a month earlier than scheduled.

Bottas says the key to his new approach will be being more guarded with his time to ensure he is in the best possible position at the start of each race weekend to maximise results.

"I'm excited to see the pecking order", said Daniel Ricciardo ahead of his debut for Renault.

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