Lewis Hamilton has backed Mark Webber's belief that Sebastian Vettel's era of dominance in Formula 1 is over for now, but fears the German could be back on top at the start of next season again.
While Vettel looks set to have a major fight on his hands to keep delivering victories until the end of the season, with Ferrari, Red Bull Racing and McLaren now all neck and neck, Hamilton thinks the championship leader can expect to enjoy another advantage by the time the 2012 season kicks off.
When asked if he agreed with Webber's view that Vettel can no longer expect to deliver wins on the bounce with his dominant era over, Hamilton said: "I agree on that in the sense that any of the top six can win.
"In terms of an era, I think it could still be that case for the next year or so – that they [Red Bull] dominate from early on and then we start to catch them up. But I definitely feel that all the teams have caught up now. You have got Ferrari, you've got us and Mercedes are slowly picking up some pace, but we are able to compete with them. Red Bull has not won a grand prix since Valencia, so they are not unstoppable."
Pushed to expand on his rather downbeat assessment of McLaren's chances of getting next season off to the kind of start it would need to wrestle control of the championship battle, Hamilton said that stable regulations ensured Red Bull Racing would be able to evolve the strengths of its current contender.
"They have had a car since 2009 that is almost the same car, it has just evolved," he explained. "That same design has just gotten better and better. We had a terrible car in 2009, we scrapped that car. We built a new car in 2010, scrapped that car. We built a new car in 2011, and I think we will have a similar car in 2012 – so we should be closer. Whether other teams will do that [I don't know]. But their [Red Bull] car will probably be another evolution of this year's car again. Until the rules change drastically again – and who knows when that will happen – we can definitely at least halve the gap. And then instead of it being half a season it could be a quarter, or a couple of races."
He added: "I may be wrong, but I have no doubts that they will be very, very strong at the beginning of next season. But we have shown that we have got the strengths to power through and beat them at certain points of the year. We just want to bring that closer to the start of it."
Hamilton reckoned that although the current McLaren was able to fight for wins, he thinks that much of its speed has come from exhaust blown diffusers – a concept that is effectively banned for 2012.
"If you look back at Silverstone and see how much downforce we lost with the exhaust situation," he said. "I think we would see the Red Bull rise to the top, or remain there. I think you would see others lose a lot more.
"Talking about the fundamentals of the car, it's not that I am massively happy with it. I think we, as a team, know that we need to improve it and that's what we are working on. Working on the basic downforce, rather than what's coming next."