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I'm thrilled to pits; FORMULA ONE AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX; Hamilton blitzes rivals in Oz practice as he gears up for title defence.

Byline: IAN GORDON IN MELBOURNE sport@dailyrecord.co.uk

LEWIS HAMILTON is ready to provide the 'wow factor' when he gets his bid for a fifth drivers' crown underway in Australia.

Britain's reigning champ looked unstoppable after he blitzed his rivals, topping the time-sheets in both practice sessions in Melbourne's Albert Park ahead of tomorrow's season opener.

The Mercedes ace, 33, insists he is relishing the chance to prove he is No.1 by emulating 1950s Argentine legend Juan Manuel Fangio with a fifth title.

Hamilton said: "It's a privilege to be in Formula One and it's a privilege to be racing for the teams we're racing for, and to be at the forefront with the best drivers you can compete against.

"When you come towards the end of your career you want to know that you competed against the best.

"There are those who bow out early and those who won world championships that have not been that competitive. The ultimate goal is to be the best and for that you have to go up against the best."

Hamilton and Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel are both bidding to match Fangio's tally.

But Vettel was only fifth fastest yesterday, half-a-second down on Hamilton, with Red Bull's Max Verstappen just 0.127 secs behind.

Hamilton said: "The gap closed up a little bit between all the cars but that's exciting. It's more challenging to eke out more from the car, discover whether I have lost something or they have all gained, but I enjoyed driving it.

"The car is quicker than last year so it feels better everywhere. Turn 11 and 12 is crazy - we're not even braking into that corner, it's insane. It's going to rain, as far as I'm aware, so it will be interesting."

Hamilton is relishing a 21-race battle with Vettel who put up a fierce fight last season before he and his team cracked in the final few races.

The Englishman said: "It has been a great experience to race Sebastian who has four world titles. It's an exciting year for Formula One fans as we have two four-time champions battling it out.

"There is a lot of hype around our team which is difficult to take much notice of because the last test was distorted."

Hamilton was expected to put pen to paper on his PS120million new deal with the German car giant before the race but that's looking unlikely now.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said: "These discussions are going in the right way and we're finalising the last topics.

"There is no reason to think that it's not going to happen soon. Lewis is in a good frame of mind, I've seen him coming back strong from the winter."

Vettel is also relishing a title battle with Hamilton as he bids to regain the drivers' crown for Ferrari for the first time since 2007.

The 30-year-old said: "We met in Formula Three where he was a lot better than I was and then in Formula One.

"I want to win the title for Ferrari and win against the best - and arguably Lewis is one of them."

CAPTION(S):

REV REVIEW Hamilton looked in fine form around Melbourne's Albert Park

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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Mar 24, 2018
Words:534
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