Lewis Hamilton admits he is struggling to predict how strong Ferrari will be at the Chinese Grand Prix, given its inconsistent start to the 2019 season.
Ferrari looked quick throughout pre-season testing but then failed to perform in Australia, finishing a distant fifth and sixth and Mercedes took a one-two. The Scuderia then turned its pace around to lead the way in Bahrain but a reliability issue for Charles Leclerc and spin for Sebastian Vettel again handed Mercedes a one-two, and Hamilton says reading the form is proving tough.
“I don’t really know at the moment — the first few races of every season are really difficult to judge,” Hamilton said. “Obviously we didn’t expect the performance we had at the first race, we didn’t expect to see what we saw at the second race. It’s only the third race — it feels like it’s been a long time already.
“It’s difficult to know. Ferrari might come here with an upgrade, and be even quicker than they were. We’ve got that long straight down the back which might serve them really well here. I’m not really sure. I hope that we don’t have to rely on reliability, and I hope we have a much closer race.
“I think qualifying was OK in the last race, but in the race there was a big delta and I hope this weekend is closer between us. This is a great track to have a real race, so the closer it is, the better.”
Ferrari’s championship challenge in 2018 faded late in the season and this year there have been missed opportunities in the opening races, but Hamilton believes it is only operationally that Ferrari has been struggling rather than the competitiveness of its car and power unit.
“You look at Melbourne, and they weren’t anywhere. But in the last race, yes. Then again last season they started off really strong. They won the first race, they won the second race, so you can’t say they were stronger this year than last year.
“They’ve obviously got a great package, as they did last year. You could say a stronger package than they had last year. I don’t think we’ve got a worse package. I think we’ve got a really good package as well, but they’ve definitely stepped up this year.”
Hamilton hopes Ferrari’s advantage is not solely down to its power unit performance, admitting it would be tougher to close the gap given limitations on upgrades.
“The engine side of things, it’s very, very hard to make big gains without taking risks, especially with the regulations that we have these days, with the small amount of engines and turbos. Those steps are harder to come by. I think it’s probably a combination of a couple of things. But closing that gap on straight-line speed, it’s not something that you’ll see close up particularly quickly.”