Lewis Hamilton reckons Ferrari are "half a second" faster than their pitlane rivals based on the evidence of pre-season testing in Barcelona. Mercedes' world champion was speaking on Friday as out on the circuit Sebastian Vettel set the fastest lap time of the winter. "This is going to be the toughest battle yet. Ferrari, their pace is very good at the moment," the Briton told a press conference.
"I think the gap is potentially half a second, something like that," said Hamilton, before quickly adding: "I have the confidence I have the team to do the job."
The 34-year-old last week suggested he felt better than ever in his quest for a sixth driver's title -- he may well need to be if his assessment of Ferrari bears out when the season starts in Melbourne on March 17.
"Last year they arrived with a car working well but they have done even better this year.
"It's OK. We don't mind the challenge, it just means we have to work harder. I'm not worried or disappointed or anything. We have a hill to climb but we know how to do it."
He cautioned against reading too much into times in testing with cars having different engine settings and fuel loads.
"Melbourne will be the first time we get a sight of it and then it will be four races before we really know where we stand."
After two weeks of testing in Barcelona wrapped up on Friday, it was four-time champion Vettel on top of the time charts with a best of 1min 16.221sec off a total of 221 laps.
Hamilton was second fastest ahead of Ferrari's Charles Leclerc and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.
Mercedes have swept the last five world championships while Ferrari's last title was 2007.
However, Ferrari team chief Mattia Binotto insisted that Hamilton was attempting to play mind games with Vettel and the Italian giants.
"I am happy to know that Hamilton believes that we are faster," he said.
"I belive that Mercedes will be very strong in Australia and I think that we would be completely wrong to believe that we are faster than them."
His caution may be well-placed. Despite Vettel setting the best time on Friday his session suffered a premature end due to an electrical issue.
Top times from Barcelona F1 testing:
Sebastian Vettel (GER/Ferrari) 1:16.221 (221 laps), Lewis Hamilton (GBR/Mercedes) 1:16.224 (231), Charles Leclerc (MON/Ferrari) 1:16.231 (168), Valtteri Bottas (FIN/Mercedes): 1:16.561 (249), Nico Hulkenberg (GER/Renault) 1:16.843 (262), Alexander Albon (THA/Toro Rosso-Honda) 1:16.882 (221), Daniil Kvyat (RUS/Toro Rosso) 1:16.898 (232), Carlos Sainz (ESP/McLaren) 1:16.913 (264), Romain Grosjean (FRA/Haas): 1:17.076 (209), Lando Norris (GBR/McLaren-Renault) 1:17.084 (164), Pierre Gasly (FRA/Red Bull-Honda) 1:17.091 (201), Daniel Ricciardo (AUS/Renault) 1:17.114 (266), Kimi Raikkonen (Alfa-Romeo-Ferrari) 1:17.239 (245), Lance Stroll (CAN/Racing Point-Mercedes 1:17.556 (185), Kevin Magnussen (DEN/Haas-Ferrari) 1:17.565 (278), Antonio Giovinazzi (ITA/Alfa-Romeo Racing-Ferrari) 1:17.639 (170), Max Verstappen (NED/Red-Bull Honda) 1:17.709 (157), Sergio Perez (MEX/Racing Point-Mercedes) 1:17.791 (192), George Russell (GBR/Williams-Mercedes): 1:18.130 (259), Robert Kubica (POL/Williams-Mercedes) 1:18.993 (220)