By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - Like many others, Lewis Hamilton sees Red Bull's Dutch hotshot Max Verstappen as a Formula One world-champion-in-waiting. And the Briton also intends to keep it that way for as long as possible.
"Whilst I’m here I’m going to be doing everything I can to stop him from winning," the Mercedes driver and four-times world champion told reporters during this month's pre-season testing in Barcelona.
"I’m sure people won’t particularly love that but that’s what we’re here to do, we’re here to battle. So I’m looking forward to having some really positive battles with him, hopefully this year."
The evidence from eight days in Spain would appear to indicate that the reigning champion's task is not about to get any easier, even if he remains the favorite to take another title.
Former champions Red Bull finished last season strongly and could be pushing Mercedes and Ferrari harder than ever when the lights go out at the season-opener in Australia on March 25.
The body language from Red Bull team bosses certainly suggests hopes are up.
That could make things very interesting indeed -- not just for the fans but also between 20-year-old Verstappen, with his army of orange shirted fans, and smiling but ferociously quick Australian team mate Daniel Ricciardo.
"There's three quick teams and there's no doubt that Red Bull are going to be the people that we are going to be fighting with this year," said Mercedes technical head James Allison during the final week of testing.
"There's still some blurriness, it's still not possible to say for sure whether we've got our nose in front of them or they've got their nose in front of us. But you can say it's close.
"I don't know what their engine plans are, but looking at what they've brought here, I'd say they've still got some bodywork to bolt on for Melbourne," added the former Ferrari technical head.
Ricciardo wrote the headlines last week when he went faster around Barcelona's Circuit de Catalunya than anyone since the track was reconfigured in 2007, even if Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel went quicker the next day.
The Australian's lap was faster than anything done in pre-season last year and also well inside the time Hamilton set for Mercedes during the 2017 Spanish Grand Prix to secure pole position.
"I'm sure Mercedes are still the top dogs at the moment but I don't feel we are far off," commented a happy Ricciardo. "If we can keep finding a few more things we can be very good."
Verstappen ended last season strongly with two wins in the last six races, a feat matched only by Hamilton, while Ricciardo was triumphant in Azerbaijan.
Red Bull, winners of four championships in a row between 2010 and 2013 with Vettel, finished the 2017 campaign third overall.
"He (Verstappen) has definitely got the potential to be a world champion," said Hamilton.
"We’ve all seen that, that’s why he’s got a great following. We’ve seen the way he drives, he’s got a great potential as a driver and he’s in a great team. And I think he’s in a perfect place to continue growing.
"I still hadn’t had my first season under my belt at 21 so he’s already further ahead than me and a lot of the drivers."
The latest odds have Verstappen as 5-1 third favorite for the title, after Hamilton and Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel, with Ricciardo fourth but at 10-1.
The Australian, out of contract at the end of the season and considering options that could lead to Mercedes or Ferrari even though Red Bull want him to stay, suggested the bookmakers might have got their sums wrong on that one.
"I'm not personally a betting man but a lot of my mates are, so if they're listening throw a cheeky $75,000 on it," he grinned.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)