Revamped F1 returns to Europe with no clear favorite

Mercedes admit Ferrari 'still ahead'

Hamilton finished a distant and curious fourth in Sochi to fall 13 points behind Vettel in the title race, but the triple world champion was back on top of the order at the Circuit de Catalunya ahead of his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas.

With Ferrari having won two of the year's first four races, Hamilton believes this weekend's actual deficit is less than that, and that both teams have found similar gains.

The next stop is the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona, where Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull are preparing to unleash upgrades.

However the leader managed to get DRS himself as traffic within one second allowed him to use the system and hold off the advancing prancing horse.

Only Ferrari, Mercedes and Force India have scored with both cars in every race this season.

Last year's Spanish GP victor Max Verstappen was again ahead of team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, by one tenth and finishing 0.636s off Hamilton's best despite a scrappy session.

Previous year it was Dutchman Max Verstappen, 18, who became the sport's youngest victor when he triumphed for Red Bull on his team debut.

It is too early to make any conclusions about relative pace, not least because Vettel's session was disrupted by a gearbox problem on the pit straight. "They seem to know more than I do", he added. The team endured two very hard years after Honda were unable to supply a competitive power unit and 2017 was expected to be a major step forward; but the engine manufacturer is once again way off the pace.

"We are obviously in a much better position, but it is still early", Vettel said.

"I didn't get everything together, I wasn't too happy but I can feel the vehicle is quick so that is good".

Wolff said Mercedes had to face this new scenario after dominating for three seasons.

"This inter-team battle is a totally different situation that what we have seen over the last three years", Wolff said.

And although tyres have played a role in the outcome, most notably Ferrari's two wins and Bottas' Bahrain Grand Prix struggles, the Finn reckons over time the tyres will have less of an impact on the race results.

The scene was befitting of the driver that entered the year as the preseason pick to lead the title race following the stunning decision of last year's champion Nico Rosberg to retire.

Vettel was in a relaxed mood, joking with home hero Fernando Alonso of McLaren who was sitting alongside him. I've had some great times there.

"Coming into this weekend we have a good understanding of where we went wrong on our side of the garage in Sochi", said Hamilton, who has not finished off the podium at consecutive races since 2013.

Mercedes has introduced a raft of upgrades for the first European round of the 2017 F1 season, including a more tapered nose, a re-designed shark "fin" and a "scooped duct".

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