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F1: Hamilton hot favourite for triple triumph

Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain celebrates on the podium after winning the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix at the Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi November 23, 2014. (Reuters)

By Reuters

Lewis Hamilton starts the Formula One season as red-hot favourite to become a triple world champion but Niki Lauda, who knows how that feels, fears the battle could be tougher than ever.

The Briton won 11 races to Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg's five last year, with Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo taking the other three, and heads for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on March 15 with every reason to be confident.

The 'Silver Arrows' have been ominous in testing, lapping with metronomic efficiency and eye-openingly faster than anyone else once they finally got around to bolting on the quicker soft tyres.

"Expectations are enormously high because we won everything that we could win last year," triple champion Lauda, now non-executive chairman of the Mercedes works team, told Reuters in an interview.

"The logic is that everybody expects and wants to have the same thing (again) but I can tell you it is not that easy. A new season is a new season and everything starts from scratch.

"I think Lewis and Nico will fight again like always for the championship but my worry is there will be a third guy also getting involved, no question."

Who that man turns out to be remains an open question, although Finland's Valtteri Bottas may be a shrewd bet after Williams looked closest to Mercedes in testing.

The ever-smiling Ricciardo, now Red Bull's team leader following the departure of four times champion Sebastian Vettel to Ferrari, looks another solid candidate to take the fight to Mercedes.

"At the moment I would say that Williams is the closest, Red Bull and Ferrari I cannot tell you now because they had some signs of speed and then nothing happens again. Red Bull you can never under-estimate," said Lauda.

"They are all trying to catch up...the question is how close can they get?"

If last year was dominated by the duel, and deteriorating relationship, between Hamilton and Rosberg then fans can expect more of the same in a season that will be both faster and louder than 2014.

"For me it's clear that Nico will attack even more this year because he lost last year, very simple," said Lauda. "I think it's going to be a tighter fight between them, because Nico wants to make sure now he can beat him."

The rules have not altered dramatically over the winter, with changes to the fronts of the cars and power unit allocation reduced from five to four per driver per season.

Honda have returned as partners to McLaren, after leaving the sport as a constructor in 2008, while Mexico City is back on the calendar for the first time since 1992.

Vettel's switch to underperforming Ferrari, where he follows in the footsteps of seven times champion and compatriot Michael Schumacher, was the headline move along with Fernando Alonso's return to misfiring McLaren.

Alonso will be absent from Australia on doctors' orders, with the Spaniard still recovering from his crash in testing in Barcelona last month, with Denmark's Kevin Magnussen serving as a stand-in.

Dutch rookie Max Verstappen will become the youngest ever driver, at just 17 years old, with Spanish newcomer Carlos Sainz joining him at Toro Rosso in a line up with a combined age of just 37.

Only 10 teams are entered in what should be a 20 race championship, subject to Germany being confirmed, with Caterham losing their fight for survival and some others facing another tough struggle to keep going.

"I think we are at very significant risk of losing more teams. We said that last year and nothing's changed," Force India deputy principal Bob Fernley told Reuters.