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Ferrari’s hopes for 2016 rest on the progress Mercedes has been able to make over the winter.

That is the claim of Maurizio Arrivabene, the Ferrari team boss, amid media reports even the innovative new white and red SF16-H car might not be enough to prevent Mercedes from winning a third consecutive championship this year.

“The question is not ‘How good are we?'” Arrivabene told the Italian newspaper La Stampa.

“It is rather ‘How strong is Mercedes?’ As they are still the best on the field.

“If we can stay for a moment in the language of football,” the Italian continued, “they have the ball and we have to catch them on the wrong foot.”

Arrivabene said Ferrari’s engineers and drivers have no doubt the new car is good, “but we still lack the comparison with Mercedes under identical conditions.

“I guess in the next four days of testing, we will get a clearer picture of where we stand and where we still need to work,” he added.

But Arrivabene said that, despite Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne having set the target of winning in Melbourne, the 21-race world championship will be played by the main protagonists as a long game.

“As in all businesses, it is your leader who sets the goals,” he said. “The president has given us everything we asked for so it is right that he expects the best.

“What matters is the result at the end of November, but it is obvious that a good start would give us a boost,” added Arrivabene.

The outcome of the 2016 world championship will depend in large part on whether Lewis Hamilton is sufficiently focused.

That is the view of Jacques Villeneuve, the 1997 world champion and now an outspoken pundit, who thinks this year’s battle could once again be a two-horse race between the silver-clad Mercedes drivers.

“To understand whether he (Hamilton) or Nico will be most competitive, first we will have to see if Hamilton’s head is more with the rappers than on the track, as happened in the final races of last season,” he said.

“We will have to see if he feels like a driver again,” Villeneuve, speaking at the launch of Italian broadcaster Sky’s F1 coverage for 2016, added.

Quoted by La Repubblica newspaper, Villeneuve was also critical of Fernando Alonso, arguing that the Spaniard priced himself out of the market for a more competitive seat in F1.

In moving to the struggling McLaren-Honda project, 44-year-old Villeneuve argued, “He made a risky choice, but we can hardly say ‘Oh poor thing’ given that he earns 30 million a year.

“Of course, few drivers would say no to that kind of money, but Alonso paid the price for his arrogance when he was angry with Ferrari.

“Although he says he made the right choice, it is impossible that he really thinks that. Vettel has already done better than him because he brought peace to Ferrari,” he insisted.

As for whether Sebastian Vettel can really challenge his silver-clad rivals in 2016, Villeneuve is not sure.

“In my opinion,” the former Williams driver said, “the Silver Arrows were never really pushed to the maximum last year. Definitely Ferrari will have made progress, but the first thing will be to see what level Mercedes is at.”

And he thinks Vettel’s teammate Kimi Raikkonen can also not be written off.

“He may be the surprise of the season,” said French Canadian Villeneuve. “Last year he received a lot of criticism but he is a more serious and stronger driver than before.”

Villeneuve does not, however, rate Red Bull’s chances, particularly because of Daniel Ricciardo.

“He suffers a lot because of the pressure,” he charged. “As soon as he became the first driver, he disappeared.”
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