Mar.11 (GMM/ Gerhard Berger has played down Mercedes’ claim it will be challenged for victory early in 2015.

Team chairman and F1 legend Niki Lauda warned this week that, contrary to suggestions the German marque is well clear of any rivals, Mercedes is not expecting to dominate in Australia and beyond.

“The competition with be much harder and tighter than last year,” Lauda told the German broadcaster RTL.

“Of course, Mercedes is the favourite based on what we did last year, but we will see in Melbourne that Ferrari has caught up by more than a second from last year, while Williams and Red Bull will be at the front again too.

“Seriously, I feel that it will go up and down, back and forth, and no one can say now how it will turn out,” the triple world champion insisted.

Fellow Austrian legend Berger, however, says winter testing has shown that Mercedes is clearly ahead of the field.

“They are quite clearly the favourite,” he told Osterreich newspaper, estimating the gap to the next-best team to be at least one second per lap.

“And that,” Berger explained, “is an awful lot in formula one today.”

The former Ferrari and McLaren driver said it is the battle behind Mercedes that is close, with Williams, Red Bull and Ferrari apparently “almost equal” in performance.

Bernie Ecclestone, meanwhile, said that while he hopes Ferrari and others can get closer to Mercedes this year, another season of silver dominance would not be a problem.

“In formula one we have always had these phases when one team dominated,” he told DPA news agency.

“Of course it would be great if we had Ferrari and one or two others fighting with them, but if the two Mercedes are fighting each other, that’s fine as well,” the F1 supremo added.