Lewis Hamilton will seek to complete a hat trick of Catalan triumphs and regain the lead in this year's drivers' world championship as Formula One returns home to this year's first European race at this weekend's Spanish Grand Prix.
The defending five-time champion is a single point behind his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas in the embryonic standings, following their unprecedented four successive season-opening one-twos. But, like his Mercedes team chief Toto Wolff, he is wary of any suggestion that rivals Ferrari is a fading force and knows that the Italian team, armed with an upgraded power unit being introduced two races sooner than planned, will mount a fierce challenge on the track where they shone in preseason testing.
"The results may seem to paint a clear picture, but the truth is that they're too flattering," said Wolff, who rejected the notion put forward by Ferrari's four-time champion Sebastian Vettel that his team was now the underdogs. "The performance has fluctuated in the first four races. Our opponents were blisteringly quick in the winter testing here so this Spanish Grand Prix will be anything but easy."
The preseason testing at the Circuit de Catalunya, where Sunday's race is to be run, seems a long time ago now as Vettel and his new team-mate Charles Leclerc struggle to rediscover those dominant displays when it matters. Predictably, most of the teams will arrive in Spain with an array of updates for their cars that may make it more difficult to predict performance, but Ferrari appears to have chosen to adopt a downbeat approach in advance.
"Obviously, Mercedes is very strong at the moment so I am pretty sure they will be very strong as well in Barcelona," said Mattia Binotto, the newly installed team boss facing the challenge of ending Mercedes five years' domination. "The last four races, on average, we were not quite there," added Vettel. "So we are not the favorites," Binotto added that Ferrari was pushing hard to catch Mercedes. "We will have a new power unit that we are introducing ahead of schedule," he said. "This second specification was due to be taken to Canada and it's only down to a big team effort that we have been able to do this."
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