Formula 1 championship leader Lewis Hamilton believes Ferrari is "ramping up" Charles Leclerc to be its new number one driver at Sebastian Vettel's expense.

Vettel had begun the season as the Italian team's "priority" driver, but a string of qualifying defeats to Leclerc and the Monegasque's back-to-back wins in Belgium and Italy have put paid to that perception.

Last time out at Russia, the German was ordered to let Leclerc by as per a pre-race start agreement, and was shuffled behind his teammate through strategy after he failed to acquiesce to the command.

Speaking ahead of the Japanese Grand Prix, Hamilton said the situation at Ferrari "looked a certain way from the outside", and made several references for the team's perceived propensity for favouring one driver over the other.

"it's an interesting dynamic they have there, because obviously Seb was number one, and [he's] now clearly not," Hamilton said.

"From the energy from the outlook, [Ferrari is] trying to ramp Charles up to be [number one].

"Is that good for a team? I don't think so. But that's the philosophy they've had forever.

"We don't complain, because we have a good philosophy that works really well here and we don't plan on changing it any time soon."

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Hamilton said his observations were "separate" to the Russian Grand Prix itself, as he said he understood Ferrari's reasoning behind its pre-race plan to have Leclerc deliberately tow Vettel instead of a rival car.

However, he said he was surprised Leclerc had agreed to not defend the position from Vettel into the first corner.

"When we do that start, Valtteri's pole [in Russia in 2018], instead of giving the tow to the third-placed guy he gives a tow to the second-placed guy and we work together in that scenario.

"He covered the inside, I got the tow, we locked out the front row and he kept the lead. So I understand that working.

"But I think Charles had said that 'I would let you take the tow' and didn't move and defend, which he should've done, because you don't give a place and expect to get it back - I wouldn't."

Asked whether his own experiences as a rookie alongside designated team leader Fernando Alonso at McLaren in 2007 meant he could relate to Vettel's current predicament, Hamilton said: "I mean - again, it's an assumption, because we're looking [at Ferrari] from the outside, so I don't know what's happening inside, I don't know what Seb's feeling, so it's difficult to say I can relate to it.

"Obviously when I was with Fernando, he was the hired number one, but then mid-season they gave us equal fuel [loads for qualifying] and then you started seeing change. That dynamic shifted, and it obviously didn't go well for the team.

"But I do understand - because ultimately when you've arrived [to a team], you want to have equal opportunity. But there are drivers that always wanted that number one status, it's easier for them. I like to earn that, but start on an equal platform.

"I think you can get that number one status weekend in, weekend out, rather than over the course of the season.

"But if you already know that you're number two, it's kind of defeatist, I think, your approach to the weekend."

Source: Motorsport.com