Reigning F1 champion Lewis Hamilton insists that Ferrari remains the reference point for Mercedes as they head into the 2019 season, which he reckons will be his ‘toughest battle’ yet.

Hamilton made a bold claim in the recently concluded eight-day pre-season test in Barcelona that Ferrari were ‘potentially half a second quicker’ than Mercedes, who he reckons have much work to do to challenge the Italian manufacturer in Australia.

The five-time world champion believes Ferrari holds the advantage following the two tests, while the other midfield F1 teams have closed up to the Top 3 as well – something which Renault’s chassis head Nick Chester stated too in his press brief.

Hamilton’s understanding is that Maranello is the reference ppint with the Italian outfit setting some quick times with both Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc right up there. The belief that Ferrari have the edge has been the normal paddock chatter.

When pressed further to state if the gap is indeed that huge, Hamilton was more diplomatic with his answer to the media including “I have no reason to expect that [the gap] to come down. The testing, you have to take it with a pinch of salt.

“We could get there and it could be bigger. We could get there and it could be less. We could get there and it could be equal. I really have no idea. There is no way when you are looking at the GPS to say what fuel load they are on, or what engine mode they are on.

“They are faster on the straights than us. Is that because they have their flexi wings that they have had in the past that drops drag, or are they more turned up than us, or are they more efficient and have less drag than us in general, or are we heavier?

“We really won’t know until we get to the race. Of course, naturally, we hope it is not bigger than what we see now, we hope it is better for us but we can’t bank on that, so we have to just work towards to close the gap that we think that might be there.”

Hamilton has been clever in mixing his words in his briefs where at one hand, he is putting Ferrari ahead but at the same time, he has backed Mercedes to topple them – a common trend, where it suddenly seems like Mercedes has taken the upperhand, when in reality, they were always ahead.

“I don’t think our focus is on how we can have a better start [in testing] than what we have now, obviously during the year you have a huge group of people who are working towards winning the world championship,” he started.

“If you are not looking like you are winning the world championship, out of worry you might pull some of the team off earlier. So mostly likely they [Ferrari] started developing this [2019] car a month at least earlier than us maybe, whereas we were pushing to win the world title, which we did.

“When I was with McLaren, it was generally how it was, you only have a certain amount of resources that you can use and you want to make sure that you solidify and win the current world championship or tail off and make sure next year is good but you don’t know if next year is good because the rules have changed, so it is about trying to find a balance.

“I would not be surprised if Ferrari had more people because in Italy it is not easy to fire people – and it is different to when you are chasing as opposed to defending, but the last year they arrived here with a car that was working well, but they have done even better this year.”

In overall terms, Hamilton is certain that battle will be tough as the engine development comes to a stagnant point with the aero power and other gains becoming ever important for teams to stay afloat in the championship fight.

“This is going to be the toughest battle yet, it’s exciting for all of you and all the fans,” he said. “Ferrari’s pace is very, very good at the moment so the challenge is going to be harder than ever.”

                      Additional reporting by Arnau Vinals and article co-written by Omar Alvarez

Check out how the teams stacked up laps in two Barcelona tests

Here’s what Daniel Ricciardo made of midfield and top end fight