Sochi, Russian - Lewis Hamilton dismissed talk of having one hand on his fifth Formula One championship on Thursday but warned rival Sebastian Vettel that he felt stronger than ever and in a better position than in 2017.
Hamilton, 40 points clear of Ferrari's Vettel with six races remaining, sounded relaxed as he faced reporters at the Russian Grand Prix.
"I don't think you ever have one hand on it," he smiled. "You either have both hands on it or you don't. There's still a long way to go and a lot of points available."
He said, however, that a lot of things, largely invisible to anybody outside the team, had made the difference compared to the 2017 season; improved relationships and communication, health and time management.
"Healthier, happier and stronger than ever," Hamilton said of himself, adding that it had taken time to work up to his current level of performance, because he had started the season still exploring the car's complexities and how to get more out of it than even the team imagined possible.
Mercedes has yet to be beaten in four Russian Grands Prix, with Hamilton winning two of them, but Vettel started on pole position in 2017 in a race won by Valtteri Bottas. This year Bottas is 110 points behind Hamilton in the championship, and may be required to play a 'wingman' role, which would leave Vettel facing a fully focused foe in Hamilton.
Hamilton arrives this time on the back of four wins in five races. Another victory on Sunday would be his eighth of the campaign and leave him in a position to take the title without having to win again. He could finish second in every remaining race and still be champion, even if Vettel wins all five.
The Russian Grand Prix was held in April last year, with Hamilton finishing fourth, but the schedule change means Mercedes come to Sochi with the car and driver much more in tune.
"I really do believe this weekend we will be in a better position than we were last year," said Hamilton. "Our understanding is far greater of the tyre than it was last year when we arrived here.
"It's still a challenge to get right. We will take our understanding of last year with a pinch of salt because the car is different and we've got a different tyre this weekend. We'll be faced with different challenges, I would assume."
Ready to close the gap
Speaking separately to reporters, Vettel felt he could still close the gap. He did his best to stay positive after finishing third last time out in Singapore - a round Ferrari was expected to win.
"Last year it was a surprise to be so competitive here, this year we expect to be competitive," said the German. "I think we need to not get distracted by the results but focus on the job we need to do. Russia, I think, has been getting better the last years for us, so it should suit our car as well,
“I don’t think we have any tracks to fear that are coming,” he added. “I think our car is working pretty much everywhere and that’s a strength of our car, so no need to be afraid of what’s coming.”
"I think we have a fair chance. We have races in the past that we should have won and didn’t and others we won that we shouldn’t have. So you never know what’s going to happen."
Coming of age
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen will have something to celebrate regardless of the outcome as the Dutch youngster turns 21 on Sunday.
The Force India pairing of Frenchman Esteban Ocon and Mexican Sergio Perez will be on best behaviour after colliding in Singapore, costing the team what looked like being a hefty points haul.
Local fans will also have one of their own to cheer on, although Sergey Sirotkin is likely to be some way off the pace on his home race debut for struggling Williams.