By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Ferrari's fast lap times and good reliability during winter testing has raised hopes of a challenge to Mercedes' three-year dominance of Formula One but the excitement is yet to infect four-times champion Sebastian Vettel.
"It's March," the German told reporters bluntly on Thursday, when asked about the 'scuderia's' title hopes ahead of Sunday's season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
"I think if you want to talk about the fight for the title, that's a question for October, November.
"Looking at the performance of the cars, obviously it was expected to be a big step up and that's how it felt on the track," the German added.
"I think that's what we all said when we first got out of the car that it's a big step forward."
Ferrari failed to win a race last year, have not won the drivers' title since Kimi Raikkonen's 2007 championship and have experienced a number of false dawns in recent years.
The team headed into last year's championship with raised expectations after a similarly positive winter testing but they were duly crushed as Lewis Hamilton and champion Nico Rosberg, now retired, won 19 out of the 21 races.
That has not stopped rivals from talking up their SF70H car, even as the Maranello-based team has been decidedly low-key about its prospects this season.
Hamilton was adamant Ferrari had the "quickest" car in Formula One at the pre-race media conference at Albert Park on Thursday and said Vettel was keeping "a lid" on the hype.
The Briton also said Mercedes had a bigger challenge to keep rivals at bay due to a raft of technical changes introduced this season including fatter tyres and aerodynamic tweaks.
Vettel scoffed at the claims.
"Obviously Mercedes has been in very, very strong form the last three years," he said.
"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.
"It is very clear who is the favourite. For all of us sitting here we are obviously trying our best to catch up. How much we have succeeded, we will see."
(Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)