Hamilton: Red Bull are strongest
Lewis Hamilton has made the surprising claim that Red Bull, rather than his McLaren team, have the fastest car in F1 heading into the decisive phase of the championship fight.
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Although they have seen their assault on both World Championships compromised in recent races by race-ending reliability problems, McLaren have nonetheless been the team to beat at each of the last four contests - claiming pole position at Budapest, Spa, Monza, and Singapore.
McLaren's recent superiority did, however, come under a renewed challenge from Red Bull last time out under the lights of Singapore and Sebastian Vettel ultimately won the grand prix after Hamilton retired through a gearbox failure.
And that step forward in form by the World Champions appears to have caught Hamilton's attention with the Briton telling Sky Sports F1 at Suzuka on Thursday that the Milton Keynes outfit head into the weekend with the fastest package.
"No, I think the Red Bull's probably the best car," Hamilton replied when asked if he felt he had the strongest car for the title run-in.
"It's slightly better than us. But generally I think we've got a very good car. It's improving and it's definitely in the top three."
Indeed, despite heading to Japan round 52 points adrift of Fernando Alonso in the championship, Hamilton thinks that winning a second drivers' title is still a distinct possibility for him before he leaves Woking at the end of the season
"A long way [to Alonso], but I've got a lot of faith in this team what they've been doing recently with the upgrades, I really think we have a good chance," Lewis said. "But who knows what's going to happen."
He added: "We've got six races left, win or lose it's important to just have a good time, enjoy it and just do your best. That's all you can hope for."
However, while Hamilton tried to play down McLaren's relative competitiveness, team-mate Jenson Button said that such is the MP4-27's pace at the moment that even he can't yet be counted out of the title fight despite being 75 points behind Alonso.
"Off the pace [in the title race] I think is the wrong word," said Jenson.
"Behind the championship leader, it's a long way. But we've got a very quick car and if we can take good points out of Fernando every race there's still a possibility for me even being 70 points.
"If you've got two McLarens, two Red Bulls and two Saubers in front of him it's a massive chunk of points and I think you're going to have those cars up the front this race."
However, Button's chances of clawing back points on Alonso have already been compromised this weekend by confirmation of a gearbox penalty after McLaren discovered that the same problem that curtailed Hamilton's unit in Singapore was also set to strike on the sister car.
It means the 32-year-old, winner at Suzuka last year, will start no higher than the third row. Yet while naturally frustrated to have to take the penalty on such a tight circuit in particular, Button is still setting his sights high for Sunday.
"I said to the guys, I wish you'd have told me in the race, I'd have properly broken it, retired and not had a penalty here," Button joked.
"It is what it is. I pretty much knew after Singapore I was going to get a penalty so it gave me a bit of time to get over that and focus on starting sixth or worse. In our race meetings, briefings or what have you, we still don't talk about finishing second or third, we talk about winning. So it's still our aim this weekend."