Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel traded verbal blows as the battle to win this year’s Formula One crown began with words.
Ferrari, who have not won a title in more than a decade, are hotly tipped to take the assault to Hamilton’s all-conquering Mercedes team this season, after an overhaul of the sport’s technical regulations coupled with an encouraging winter of testing for the famous Italian constructor.
Mercedes have won 51 of the last 59 races in an unprecedented stranglehold on the sport which has seen them clinch the last three drivers’ and constructors’ championships.
And while Hamilton and his new team-mate Valtteri Bottas - the Finn who has replaced retired world champion Nico Rosberg - were hardly sluggish in testing, there is a real sense Ferrari may not just have closed the gap, but usurped their rivals ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
“I see Ferrari being the quickest at the moment and they will definitely be the favourites,” said Hamilton on Thursday.
“It is interesting to see Sebastian is usually a lot more hyped, but I can tell he is excited and trying to keep a lid on it.”
Vettel, keen to play down said hype, did not concur.
“Mercedes have been in very strong form over the past three years,” he said.
“If a team is strong then they will build a strong car the year after, no matter what they do with the rules, so it is very clear who is the favourites.
“For all of us sitting here we are trying our best to catch up. How much we have succeeded we will see.”
The signs, following eight days of testing, are that Ferrari, who failed to register a single victory last season, have indeed caught up.
And the prospect of Vettel and Hamilton, who between them have won six of Formula One’s last seven championships, vying for this year’s crown is certainly the mouth-watering one the sport needs after three stale seasons of Hamilton versus Rosberg.
“I have not had a lot of battles with Sebastian on track so of course I would love to have that,” Hamilton, 32, added.
“You want to be racing against the best and that is what the fans want to see, that close racing, that sheer competitiveness, and the ups and downs.
“Having more teams and more drivers at the front fighting for wins is what racing is all about so I am hoping that is the case.
“The more of a fight you have the more satisfying it is when you are victorious. We are up for a challenge, up for a fight and that is what I have prepared for.”
One man who will not be present on the grid in Melbourne on Sunday is the defending champion.
Rosberg finally ended his long-running losing streak against Hamilton by clinching the title at the season finale in Abu Dhabi. He sensationally retired five days later.
It was put to Hamilton, joined in the press conference by Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo and Fernando Alonso, whether there was a sense of disappointment because he would not have the chance to reclaim his title from Rosberg this year.
“Not really,” Hamilton replied. “When I walked in here I thought it was kind of neat because there is a champion here, and another champion there and a potential champion, too, so it does not make a difference whether the reigning champion is here or not.
“Every year is a brand new year, a brand new start and a brand new championship to win. We are all out there to beat each other.”