Lewis Hamilton has described Max Verstappen's new Red Bull car as "ridiculously fast" ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix, but has warned his rival that "I've come back to fight for that eighth" world title.
This weekend, 2021's title rivals will do battle on track for the first time since their controversial Abu Dhabi showdown, but in cars very different to those that they raced last year.
Even after six long days of pre-season testing, the sport's fans are still waiting to find out which team has built the fastest car.
If Hamilton is to be believed, his Mercedes team are struggling, while Red Bull and Ferrari are set to fight for the race win in Bahrain on Sunday.
But none of his rivals are willing to rule Mercedes out just yet, with Scuderia boss Mattia Binotto adamant that Hamilton, along with Verstappen, remain drivers armed with race-winning cars.
Eighth title would be "mind-blowing"
Talking directly to fans at the 2022 Dubai Expo, Hamilton spoke openly about his winter away from the sport that saw him "unplug" from social media following the controversy of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Had the 37-year-old won that race, he would have been crowned as an eight-time F1 World Champion, the first driver of all time to reach that figure. Instead, he remains tied with the legendary Michael Schumacher on seven.
When asked what it would mean to win an eighth title in 2022, Hamilton said: "Honestly, I think it's impossible to know what the future holds, and what it would feel like, but doing something that no one else has done would be mind-blowing.
"Abu Dhabi was obviously a difficult period of time. And obviously, we're living in a crazy time in the world. But I've just really had to unplug. I was with my family, trying to be the best uncle I can be, and just creating memories in my family and rebuilding."
He later added: "I've come back to fight for that eighth."
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What Hamilton has learned from defeat in F1
Hamilton has gone into the final race of an F1 season either as champion or with a mathematical chance of becoming so in 11 of the 15 seasons he has competed in.
The defeat in Abu Dhabi was the fourth time that he had missed out on taking the title at the final hurdle, with so much learned in defeat, he says.
"My whole life has been about winning. I've been racing for 29 years, having that mentality of always knowing that you can be better," Hamilton continued.
"I think during this time, [I've been] realising that winning is not everything and that sometimes when you lose, you actually win and grow.
"My advice for people is just don't be afraid of failure because you will always meet failure on the way to success."
Hamilton: Red Bull look ridiculously fast
Hamilton will be hoping that his 16th season in Formula 1 will allow him to put 2021 behind him, but first Mercedes must tame a W13 car that has been billed as somewhat problematic by the team.
Mercedes held two conference calls with Hamilton on Monday as they attempt to cure their testing issues. For now, though, Red Bull and Ferrari look to be in front with "ridiculously fast" cars, according to Hamilton.
"Bahrain is going to be tough. It's very bumpy in Bahrain right now. It's going to be better than it was in testing, because it is a night race, obviously," the Briton said.
"There's a lot of cars are looking quite fast, like the Alfa Romeo was looking fast, Valtteri [Bottas] was looking quick.
"Obviously, the Red Bull looks ridiculously fast at the moment, and the Ferrari. But we are the best team, so..."
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