|© AP Photo/Vincent Thian
Despite a surprisingly strong finish at the Australia Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton thinks his new team Mercedes isn't ready to challenge rivals Red Bull and Ferrari for the overall title.
Hamilton told The Associated Press that his fifth-place finish in Melbourne was "a good step" considering the team was at times two seconds behind the leaders a year ago. And the 2008 champion said he expects further progress at this week's Malaysian Grand Prix, where the team hopes to have sorted out the under steering problems that plagued Hamilton in Melbourne.
"We are not title contenders at the moment," said Hamilton, who switched from McLaren to join a team which finished a distant fifth in the constructors' championship last year.
"We are not at the forefront of the pack, leading and showing blistering times," he said. "We were competitive in testing but generally that is because we were on lighter fuel at some stages than other people. We can't take too much from testing."
Team principal Ross Brawn agreed, noting the team "underperformed" in Melbourne and struggled to get the balance of the car right. It was further hurt when Hamilton's teammate Nico Rosberg retired on the 27th lap due to an electrical failure.
"It's our view we have a gap to close and we are working on closing the gap," he said.
Such a prognosis may have once depressed the 28-year-old Hamilton, who won one F1 title with McLaren but increasingly expressed his frustration with the team after having several races ruined by mechanical problems or crew mistakes.
But Hamilton strikes a more patient tone these days, saying Mercedes' goal of competing at the top has to be viewed in terms of years rather than months.
"Definitely in the past, I wanted to rush to things," he said. "I'm in a much better position now and I realise that I'm on a new team that has struggled in the past... I know where we stand and where we have to grow from. I do also appreciate that it could take a long time before we get that championship."
Hamilton is considered one of the fastest drivers in the sport but has often allowed distractions on and off the track to get the better of him.
He's feuded with Ferrari's Felipe Massa after colliding with him several times in 2011 and criticised race stewards. He also angered McLaren team management last year by posting a photo of a telemetry sheet showing data from his and former teammate Jenson Button's car on his Twitter page at the Belgian GP.
The controversies, along with his rock star persona -- have helped make Hamilton one of the sport's most polarizing figures, an impression he doesn't dispute but one he wants to change this season.
He says he "is in the happiest place I have ever been" and credits his new attitude with the shift to Mercedes.
"Some places you have to fit a certain shape. I had to be a certain way," Hamilton said. "Here, I can be more myself. Ross (Brawn) was looking at my tattoos the other day and was like ‘I like them.’ I was like, wow, I've never had that before. If it was in the olden days and someone saw my tattoos, they might not be too happy about it."
But Hamilton also was careful not to reopen a controversy over McLaren which started last week when he suggested the team was too controlling. That prompted Button to criticise Hamilton as wrong to make the comments.
"I have nothing bad to say about McLaren. It's a fantastic team," he said. "I'm so blessed to have been a part of it... I'm just happier where I am now, where I can come out of my shell a little bit more."
The team said they have been pleasantly surprised with what they have seen so far from Hamilton.
They knew they were getting an elite driver but weren't sure whether he would bring unrealistic demands or excessive baggage. So far, he has been a team player who readily compliments everyone in the paddock, who knows his way around the car and is not shy about offering his thoughts on how the team can improve.
"I was expecting a superstar with lots of difficulties in dealing with such a person used to being in the spotlight," said Toto Wolff, the team's new motorsport chief. "It's actually the opposite. He is not behaving like a superstar but he knows who is important for him, knows how to motivate and treat people well."