Mercedes may have pummelled the competition last year, but star driver Lewis Hamilton said Sunday the German constructors face a heavyweight brawl with a beefed-up Ferrari team this season.The Briton led from start to finish to take a 6.25-second victory over Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel at the ChineseGrand Prix, settling a score two weeks after Vettel snatched the season-opener in Australia.
But Hamilton said the race in Shanghai could easily have been much closer and he expects a stiff challenge in 2017 from what he called the best Ferrari team in a decade.
"Strength-wise we are stronger, but pace-wise, if anything Ferrari got a bit quicker this weekend and the gap's even closer," said Hamilton, a triple world champion.
"It'll be interesting and it's just going to unfold over these next races."
Hamilton heaped praise on Vettel, the German four-time world champion, who was unlucky to have pitted just before a safety car and emerged stuck in traffic.
"But later on Sebastian got behind me and we had a real race on our hands," Hamilton said.
"He is at his best and he is phenomenally quick. And Ferrari are at their best in years -- in a decade, pretty much."
Vettel's win in Melbourne raised expectations of a spirited Ferrari fight in the sport's wider new cars.
It's a prospect Hamilton said he relished.
"The ultimate fighter wants to go up against the best battle he can have, because when you come out on top it's so much more satisfying," he said.
"So yeah, I love this fight. It's going to go right down to the end of the season."
Vettel also has expressed confidence that this year's outcome will not be a foregone conclusion in Mercedes' favour.
"I think if we can challenge Mercedes again, that’s very good news. They are very, very strong," he said after Sunday's race.
"I think there’s stuff that we can do better, must do better, can improve."
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff called Hamilton's win at the Shanghai circuit the "perfect riposte' to Vettel's Australian Grand Prix win.
But he said Mercedes' recent dominance cannot last forever.
"It's a new era and we have to get used to it," he said.
"It looks like we are very close on pace with Ferrari. I expect it to ping-pong through the season. One race we will be ahead, another they will."