SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Lewis Hamilton is casting a wary eye towards Ferrari and expects to be vying with them for victory at this week's Chinese Grand Prix after the resurgent Italian team continued to take the fight to Mercedes in Friday practice.
The day got off to a promising start for Mercedes, who appeared to have regained their dominant stride in the cooler Chinese conditions after Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel had benefited from the sweltering heat to win in Malaysia.
World champion Hamilton did end the day at the top of the timesheets in both practice sessions at the Shanghai International Circuit but his one second early advantage was sliced in half by Kimi Raikkonen in the afternoon.
Running longer stints than both Mercedes on the faster soft-compound tires on a warming track, the Finn's race pace was quick enough to suggest another strategic battle is likely to be waged between the teams on Sunday.
"I don't know but they look very quick," said Hamilton, who heads the championship standings by three points over Vettel having led a Mercedes one-two in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix ahead of team mate Nico Rosberg.
"It's quite close between us and Ferrari and Nico's quite quick as well, so I think we definitely have a race."
The Maranello-based squad also looked strong in race simulation runs and while Hamilton is expecting a close contest, he is hoping a horsepower advantage will keep Mercedes ahead at a circuit with the longest straight on the Formula One calendar.
"The Ferraris look like they're just as quick as they were in the last race," added Hamilton, who is hunting for a record-extending fourth win in China.
"I think it's going to be close but I think we've got the power to stay ahead."
Rosberg said that while he felt Mercedes had the better qualifying speed, the team's long-run pace needed to be analyzed overnight.
The German finished second to Hamilton in the opening session but could only manage fifth in the afternoon after making a mistake and running wide at the final corner on his fastest flying lap.
"It was okay, not ideal, but all in all it was good because we found the direction with the set up slowly but surely, not 100 percent sure but it's okay," said Rosberg, who claimed his maiden pole position and win at the Shanghai circuit in 2012.
"In terms of one-lap pace I think we're the quickest. In terms of race pace let's wait and see. I don't know, we need to analyze our tire wear."
Editing by John O'Brien