Ferrari have taken step back: Hamilton

Laine Clark
F1 champion Lewis Hamilton (r) says Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari is not his major threat this season

He may have denied the "gloves were off" but six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton still couldn't resist a dig at his great rival Sebastian Vettel, claiming Ferrari have taken a step backwards ahead of the 2020 Formula One season.

Tensions were expected to reach boiling point at this weekend's season opening Australian Grand Prix after seven teams - including Hamilton's Mercedes outfit - protested governing body FIA's handling of a recent investigation into Ferrari's contentious 2019 engine.

The seven teams are considering legal action after the FIA controversially concluded their investigation by reaching a confidential settlement with the Scuderia despite admitting it had not been satisfied by Ferrari's defence of its engine's legality.

But asked if the FIA-Ferrari controversy had ensured the "gloves were off" when he takes on four-time world champion Vettel this year, Hamilton played down their rivalry.

"Between us the respect has continued to grow and that doesn't change," he said.

"What goes on in the background between teams and the government body is a separate issue."

But Hamilton then added: "I think it (FIA investigation findings) could have been handled better for sure.

"But I don't want to add too much to it because it will cause too much trouble."

Vettel said his friendship with Hamilton had not been affected by the controversy although they did beg to differ on the investigation's handling.

"As far as I understand we (Ferrari) were cleared (by FIA)," he said.

"For me it is very simple, I trust my team to do the right thing within the regulations at all times and I think we all trust the governing body FIA - that's the answer.

"And for me it doesn't change the relationship that I have with Lewis, the respect that we share that has grown over the years is untouched."

Hamilton still managed to niggle Vettel by claiming Red Bull - spearheaded by young gun Max Verstappen - were his main rivals for 2020.

"I think Red Bull have been particularly strong. Ferrari have definitely taken a step back power-wise but maybe the car is better so we will see in the next couple of days," he said.

Ferrari have been accused of holding back at pre-season testing ahead of the season opener and Vettel was coy when asked about Hamilton's dig.

"Have we taken a step back? We will find out in (Saturday's) qualifying when everyone is trying to get to their maximum," he smiled.

Hamilton is still considered the man to beat this year.

He is vying for a seventh world title, equalling Michael Schumacher's record.

And his outfit Mercedes are aiming for a record seventh straight constructors championship, which would eclipse Ferrari's record run from 1999-2004.