Lewis Hamilton has said he would welcome the opportunity of a close battle involving several teams and drivers for the 2017 Formula One world championship, which starts in Australia on Sunday.
The 32-year-old Englishman, who won two of his three titles in a Mercedes that has dominated the sport for the past three years, believes new regulations have levelled the playing field and that he will now have to vie with Ferrari and Red Bull for the championship.
Hamilton’s car was extremely reliable in testing this year and showed a good turn of pace but Ferrari proved quickest in Barcelona, which he thought made the Scuderia favourite going into the first race of the season – a prospect that has only provided additional motivation.
“Every year your goal is to beat everyone and the more of a fight you have the more satisfying it is when you are victorious,” he said. “We are up for a challenge, up for a fight, and that’s what I prepare for. I think it’s not a bad thing for the sport.”
The new regulations have a formula intended to make the cars faster with wider bodies, fatter tyres and a lower rear wing. The emphasis has been placed on aerodynamics after Mercedes proved to be untouchable, winning the three drivers’ and constructors’ championships between 2014 and 2016.
Hamilton, despite being at the wheel of the right car in that period, insisted that the revamp was absolutely necessary. “Drastic changes spice it up,” he said. “I’ve never seen the fans so excited about a season as they are now, being that we don’t know where the cars or the teams are, so more of that would be welcome.
“You want to be racing against the best. That’s what the fans want to see, they want to see close racing, the sheer competitiveness, the ups and downs of the best doing the best. I am looking forward to racing with all these guys and I hope that it is close.”
Hamilton appeared to be in a light-hearted frame of mind performing his media duties. When asked for his wish-list for the new season he joked: “A Miami race and more ladies in the paddock. More access for the women. There’s too many dudes in the paddock.”
The Briton seems optimistic and reinvigorated after defeat in the championship to his former team-mate Nico Rosberg last season, a difficult period during which his relationship with the team became fractious.
The championship has been a two-horse race between the pair since 2014 and Hamilton was speaking alongside Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, who echoed the British driver’s opinion that a more open fight is something all the drivers want.
“To have more cars fighting for a win makes it more exciting,” said Ricciardo. “If Lewis is in a fight and he wins a race against four of us as opposed to just his team-mate that reward is bigger. If you can win against more it’s good for the fans but that feeling of self accomplishment is great.”
F1 has, of course, often seen periods of dominance by one team ended after a rule change, most recently Red Bull’s run of four consecutive championships, which concluded with the last change in 2014. Hamilton insisted that his team are looking to buck that trend. “As far as I am aware no team has won back to back through big rule changes and that is our goal as a team – we are here to win and to do something that no one else has done.”
Mercedes will doubtless be strong again. Despite the aero-focus in 2017, the greater drag it creates means the power unit will be as important as ever and their engine advantage will have carried over from last year. They remain the team to beat. Ferrari have been playing down their performances in Barcelona, careful to manage expectations after an over-optimistic test period last season was followed by poor results for an uncompetitive car. Sebastian Vettel, who was frustrated by last year’s model, was insistent Hamilton’s team would begin on top.
“Obviously Mercedes has been in very strong form the last few years,” he said. “And even though we changed the rules, the regulations, I think if a team is strong then they will build a strong car no matter what you do. It’s very clear who is the favourite … we’re obviously trying our best to catch up. How much we have succeeded, we will see.”
Drawing any real conclusions from testing is a dangerous game and Hamilton was also eager to discover the reality of whether he will face stiff competition this season. “Ferrari have been the quickest and they are definitely the favourites but we will find out over the weekend,” he said.
“It’s interesting to see, Sebastian is usually a lot more hyped and I can tell he is trying to keep a lid on it, but their pace was great in testing. I am very keen to see what Red Bull bring because they were quite behind through testing, at least compared to Ferrari, and they didn’t seem to bring many upgrades, so I assume they are bringing something here – which I am excited to see.”