LONDON (Reuters) - After winning three out of four races and taking a 27-point lead in the standings, Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton has a new challenge as he and Mercedes prepare for the start of the European season.
A third world title, which would lift the Mercedes driver level with boyhood hero Ayrton Senna and British great Jackie Stewart, looks increasingly likely but Europe will play a big part in deciding that.
Although Hamilton said after Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix that he felt more comfortable and ‘powerful’ in the car than last year, when he won 11 races, he actually has no more wins at this stage than he did in 2014.
The biggest difference is better reliability, and the failure so far of team mate Nico Rosberg to raise his game.
In 2014, Hamilton started the season with a retirement in Australia through no fault of his own and then won in Malaysia, Bahrain and China. He also started three of the four on pole position.
Rosberg, meanwhile, won the opener in Melbourne and followed it up with three second places.
That meant that it was the German, not Hamilton, who headed to Spain in the overall lead -- albeit by a mere four points.
This season, Hamilton has started every race on pole and won in Australia, China and Bahrain while finishing second to Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel in Malaysia.
Rosberg, by contrast, has chalked up two second and two third places.
The German needs to lift his game quickly, just as he did last year after Hamilton reeled off four wins in a row before being beaten in Monaco, Canada, Austria, Germany, Hungary and Belgium.
The title battle was, of course, kept alive somewhat artificially due to the awarding of double points for the final race in Abu Dhabi but that unloved experiment has now been scrapped.
Formula One’s commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone, who was a big advocate of what others saw as a gimmick, said before the start of this season that he feared Hamilton could consequently have the championship won by Monza in September.
But to do so, or at least wrap it up with several races to spare, the Briton will need to win those races that eluded him last year -- although Germany has since dropped off the calendar.
“I don’t think it moves me up a gear, I‘m already in a pretty good gear,” Hamilton said on Sunday as he contemplated the return to Europe and the Spanish Grand Prix on May 10, followed by Monaco on May 24.
”Last year obviously I was catching up (after the blank in Australia) and then here I didn’t qualify on pole but did get the win.
“This weekend I got the pole and did the job. Now I’ve got to improve when I get to Barcelona, I don’t want to be back where I was last year.”
Monaco, a race Senna won six times, is a particular favorite and target. Hamilton won there with McLaren in 2008 but local resident Rosberg will be going for a hat-trick after victories in 2013 and 2014.
“I’ve come second twice and fourth once. That’s not good, especially as Senna won it so many times,” said the champion. “So I’ve got to get on it.”
Editing by Ed Osmond