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Hamilton chases Schumacher as virus overshadows F1 season start

Lewis Hamilton celebrates winning the final grand prix of the 2019 season at Abu Dhabi to cap a sixth world drivers’ title, one short of Michael Schumacher’s record © AFP/File / GIUSEPPE CACACE

MELBOURNE, Australia, Mar 11 – Lewis Hamilton believes his all-conquering Mercedes is even better than last year as he begins his bid to equal Michael Schumacher’s record seven world titles at an Australian Grand Prix given the green light despite rising coronavirus fears.

The British driver has been the dominant force in recent times, winning five of the last six drivers’ championships, including in 2019 when he passed legendary five-time Argentine champion Juan Manuel Fangio on the all-time list.

“It’s been intense, with a huge amount of work from everybody at the track and back home at the factories,” the 35-year-old said of preparations overshadowed by concerns about the virus and its impact on the sport.

“The car’s feeling like a step forward from last year,” Hamilton added after pre-season testing.

“But it’s clear we’ve still got a few issues we need to iron out,” said the driver who won 11 of last season’s 21 grands prix.

There were fears the Melbourne race may be ditched due to travel restrictions affecting team personnel, particularly from Italy-based Ferrari.

The words “Stop F1” appeared in the Sydney sky on Wednesday © AFP / DAVID GRAY

On Wednesday, two Haas team staff and one from McLaren were isolated while tests are conducted to see if they have coronavirus after they showed symptoms at the track.

“We expect to receive the results overnight. The team is operating as per our normal schedule,” a McLaren official said.

It is not clear what it might mean for the grand prix if the test results come back positive.

F1, like many other sports, is already reeling from COVID-19 with next week’s Bahrain Grand Prix set to be held behind closed doors, and the Chinese Grand Prix in April postponed.

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– ‘I can beat anyone’ –

Mercedes head into the race with a new dual-axis steering system (DAS), which has inevitably sparked complaints from other teams over whether it is legal.

While Hamilton has taken every pole at Albert Park since 2014, he has won just once in that time, and it was teammate Valtteri Bottas who sizzled at pre-season testing.

The Finn will be looking for a second successive win in Australia after sweeping to an emphatic victory last year, a massive 20.9 seconds ahead of Hamilton.

“On a good day, when I get 100 percent out of myself, I feel I can beat anyone. But how to be there at every race weekend -– that’s the tricky thing,” Bottas said.

So dominant were Mercedes in 2019 that Ferrari had to wait until the 13th race at Belgium in September for their first win, courtesy of new boy Charles Leclerc.

Team principal Mattia Binotto said after testing that Ferrari’s new engine was “not as strong” as last year, bad news for the Scuderia as they chase a first drivers’ title since 2007.

Sebastian Vettel celebrates his only win of 2019 at the Singapore Grand Prix alongside second-placed Ferrari teammate Charles Leclerc © AFP / ROSLAN RAHMAN

But with Italy one of the countries worst-hit by the coronavirus, he wants Ferrari to “put a smile on people’s faces” this weekend.

“We know that the opposition is strong, but we also know that it is the start of a long season where development rate, reliability, and our operational effectiveness will be key,” he said.

Ferrari have a revamped engine after rivals last year expressed suspicions about their straight-line speed superiority, though a probe by governing body FIA was unable to prove the Maranello team had cheated.

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Leclerc, 22, overshadowed teammate Sebastian Vettel in his debut season for Ferrari, with the German four-time world champion looking to reassert himself this year.

– Verstappen ‘ready’ –

Binotto insisted the two Ferrari drivers would start on an equal footing, a stance Vettel accepted after a 2019 season where he won only once, in Singapore.

“I don’t see Charles going up and me going down. We have the same car and, for me, it doesn’t change anything. That was also the case last season,” he said.

Leclerc won two races to beat Vettel to fourth place in the world championship by 24 points.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen celebrates his win at the Brazilian Grand Prix last year © AFP / NELSON ALMEIDA

Dutchman Max Verstappen was third behind the two Mercedes drivers last year and could be one of Hamilton’s closest challengers in his Red Bull, which excelled in testing.

“I definitely feel ready for Melbourne,” said the 22-year-old, who won three races last year.

In the midfield, Renault, McLaren and Racing Point will all be looking to set down a season marker in Australia.

Canadian Nicholas Latifi is the only rookie on the grid, replacing Robert Kubica at Williams, while Esteban Ocon returns to F1 for Renault alongside Daniel Ricciardo.

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