F1: Lewis Hamilton reflects on his most 'challenging winter' and stresses that no team holds an advantage until they head out in Melbourne

Mercedes driver has impressed in pre-season testing but feels that any advantage will not prove true until everyone has competed in the same conditions at the same time

Speak to anyone inside Formula One and it is almost certain Lewis Hamilton will figure in their top three when asked as to the fastest drivers in the sport today.

Without doubt, Hamilton can push a car to the ragged edge and extract every ounce of raw speed it possesses.

But ask those same insiders as to the smartest and it is highly unlikely Hamilton would line up in their 'podium' trio.

That might sound harsh on a driver who has a world title to his name, but the likes of Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button arguably figure ahead of Hamilton when it comes to being race-savvy.

Past history has shown Hamilton is not the coolest of customers, and perhaps lacks a touch of finesse by occasionally trying to barge his way through gaps that barely exist.

 

The incidents with Felipe Massa and Mark Webber in the 2010 Italian and Singapore Grands Prix spring to mind, along with his collisions with Pastor Maldonado and Jenson Button at the races in Monaco and Canada in 2011.

It could also be said Hamilton wears his heart on his sleeve, especially in times of emotional turmoil as his on-off relationship with pop star Nicole Scherzinger has undoubtedly put him through the wringer.

And then there are doubts as to whether he has the racecraft to guide a car home when it needs caressing, particularly since the arrival of Pirelli's more degradable rubber.

Hamilton has made no secret of the fact he would love to simply race, to go for broke at every track without having to worry about tyres or any other such determining factors.

With the focus this year on the new power units, Pirelli has agreed to take more of a backseat and produce a more durable rubber.

But there is a new 'kicker' for Hamilton to deal with, and that is in relation to the fuel regulations as each car will start with a 100kg limit, as opposed to 150kg in the past.

The strategy now will focus on fuel management, ensuring the car has enough to reach the chequered flag, again denying Hamilton the chance of a flat-out push.

The question that has arisen is how the 29-year-old will cope with this latest restriction, with the suggestion being team-mate Nico Rosberg will have the edge and is a better bet for the championship.

It is a claim Hamilton has refuted, insisting neither he nor Rosberg are able to learn any more, no matter how long each might spend in an engineering meeting.

That remains to be seen once the on-track action begins on March 16 with the season-opening Australian Grand Prix around Melbourne's Albert Park.

Hamilton at least ended pre-season on a respectable footing with the fastest time of the final day - albeit after spending the first four hours in the garage as his mechanics sorted out a gearbox issue - and the second quickest of the eight overall in Bahrain, just 0.020secs behind Williams' Felipe Massa.

Unsurprisingly, Hamilton has now been installed as title favourite, though he said: "All I can say is we will definitely be shooting for the top five!"

Assessing the overall picture, Hamilton added: "Right now, we really don't know where anyone stands. We have enough to concentrate on without looking at how other teams are getting on.

"I feel we've a strong package, but we're certainly not guaranteed to be ahead of the pack.

"You can be pretty sure Ferrari will be quick, and Red Bull will be strong, even if they're struggling a little with the power unit right now.

"So I wouldn't be surprised if there are just a few tenths (of a second) between teams in Melbourne.

"It won't be until we've all gone out at the same time, in the same conditions, with the same fuel that we get a better idea."

Hamilton at least acknowledges Mercedes are front-runners after he and Rosberg combined to place the German manufacturer out in front in terms of most kilometres completed.

"It has definitely been the most challenging winter I've experienced and the car is still very much a work in progress," said Hamilton.

"There's so much to learn with these new cars. It's just mind-blowing and I don't think anybody can be fully ready for the challenge of this season.

"Like every team, we found ourselves encountering problems every day and we've still got some work to do in terms of both reliability and speed.

"But we've learnt a lot over the course of these last few weeks and overall it's been a good winter of testing for us.

"I feel as ready as I can be and I'm looking forward to seeing where we are in Melbourne."

There are many who would suggest a second title for Hamilton is long overdue given his talent as it is now six years since he captured his one and only championship in dramatic circumstances.

If nothing else, testing has at least suggested Hamilton should be in the running to bring to an end Sebastian Vettel's four years of domination.

"The goal is always to win the championship, and this year I'm more pumped for it than ever," insisted Hamilton.

"I feel confident the team is pushing hard to get us to the top and we've great people working on every area of what we do, so we have a fighting chance."

PA

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