March 17, 2016

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Defending Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton and his predecessor Sebastian Vettel agree that the competition between their Mercedes and Ferrari teams should be a lot closer in 2016 than it has been over the past couple of seasons.

Speaking ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, both drivers forecast a genuine title fight instead of the domination that Mercedes had enjoyed over the opening two seasons of the V6 hybrid engine era.

Ferrari set the fastest times in preseason testing, and while most observers still believed Mercedes would be a cut above when it comes to the real contest this weekend, Hamilton was not so sure.

''This year the whole pack looks like it's going to be a little bit closer,'' Hamilton said Thursday. ''I think they (Ferrari) have got something up their sleeve this weekend. Ferrari are going to be a lot closer than they talk about. They're arriving on a low but going to deliver high.''

Vettel said Ferrari is still going to be short of Mercedes on short-run, qualifying pace, but it expects to make up ground on race day.

''We are on a good track and we are making progress,'' Vettel said. ''We did a step over the winter but whether it is big enough we need to wait the first couple of races and see.

''We have a plan, we know what we want to do, we know where we want to go, so bit by bit I hope we improve and we'll be in a better position very soon, with more pole positions under our belt.''

The grid for Sunday's race may have an unfamiliar look, as rain is forecast both for Friday's practice sessions, costing all teams some much-needed race and qualifying simulation. Rain showers may also affect Saturday's qualifying as well.

It will be the first qualifying session under the new format, in which drivers get a few minutes in each of the three qualifying segments to set their best lap times before drivers start being eliminated one-by-one.

That gives some hope of a strong performance by one of the smaller teams, and Vettel believes his former team Toro Rosso is chief among those who could provide a threat to the sport's leading teams, both this weekend and through the season.

''Toro Rosso has made a massive step,'' Vettel said. ''They had a very strong car last year, but with the Ferrari engine this year they will be quite a bit stronger.''

Vettel also mentioned the new American-backed Haas team was one that ''could surprise.''

First-year teams normally struggle in F1, but the proven motorsports knowhow of team boss Gene Haas from NASCAR, Ferrari-supplied engines and a chassis from Dallara could see Haas vault ahead of some of the more experienced teams.

Driver Esteban Gutierrez was playing down the prospect of a points finish, saying the goal is to ''run smoothly during the weekend and if we accomplish that this weekend we can get out in a very happy mood.''

Manor is another team expected to take a step forward this season after years of struggle, with a Mercedes engine supply expected to move it from regular back-marker to a points contender.

Rio Haryanto will make his F1 debut this weekend as the sport's first Indonesian driver. He said this year's car is a ''much better package'' and the goal is to score points.

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