Max Verstappen expects Mercedes to be Red Bull’s main rivals despite a strong showing from McLaren in both of Friday’s practice sessions at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.
Lando Norris was second in the first session and third in the second in the MCL35M while Hamilton was fourth and then third in Mercedes’ W12.
Valtteri Bottas slumped to fifth in FP2 after being second only to Verstappen in FP1 as the Dutchman topped the time-sheets in both sessions.
McLaren’s third-placed finish in 2020 was their best season since 2012 and they have added in Daniel Ricciardo, who managed two podiums for Renault in 2020, alongside Norris for this season.
The Australian went only ninth fastest in the first session but improved to P6 under the lights as both Mercedes-powered orange cars showed excellent pace.
Yet despite Mercedes’ troubles, with Red Bull carrying a pace advantage into FP3 and qualifying on Saturday, Verstappen expects the world champions to be closer to them than McLaren.
Speaking to Sky Sports F1 to reflect on Friday’s running, Verstappen said: “It was alright. Of course different conditions again compared to testing. It’s been alright.
“Good feeling in the car. Of course there’s still things to look into, tyre-wise as well, and a bit of balance tuning. Overall I’m pretty happy.
“Still, tomorrow is again a different day. Even more windy, which with these cars is quite tricky. We’ll have to try and be on it. But a good start to the weekend.”
Asked if McLaren could be bigger rivals than Mercedes to his team, Verstappen was confident the Silver Arrows will be back to their best soon enough.
He said: “I don’t think so. I still expect Mercedes to be the strongest Mercedes-powered car.”
Seven-time world champion Hamilton reflected: “We thought Red Bull would be as fast as they are if not faster. We know they’re leading at the moment.
“I don’t think we’re the fastest at the moment but we’re not far off. We have a clear target of where we want to be. We’ll see tomorrow.
“The main thing in my mind is that we still have plenty of work to do if we want to fight for the pole and for the win.”
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff insists it is not yet truly clear where the Brackley-based outfit stand compared to their rivals and in particular to title hopefuls Red Bull.
“It’s just a real dogfight when you overlay the fastest laps and even the long runs, it’s just so very close,” he said.
“Every kg in fuel load can make quite a big swing. So we don’t really know. I think we’re definitely closer here than we’ve been in testing. But I wouldn’t know where to position us versus Red Bull.”