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Hamilton chases Schumacher as virus-hit F1 season roars into life

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Melbourne (AFP)

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 crowns at an Australian Grand Prix given the green light despite coronavirus fears.

The British driver has been the dominant force in recent times, winning five of the previous six titles, including in 2019 when he bettered legendary five-time Argentine champion Juan Manuel Fangio.

"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.

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.

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

But it is going ahead with ticket sales "very strong", in contrast to the second race in Bahrain next week which will be run behind closed doors to combat spread of the disease.

The Chinese Grand Prix in April has been postponed.

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 steely 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.

- Dominant Mercedes -

"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.

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.

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

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 they would start on an equal footing, a stance Vettel accepted after a 2019 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.

Flying 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 Verstappen, who won three races last year, adding that he and teammate Alex Albon had no complaints with the car.

"Overall I think the pace looks pretty good."

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

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

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