Max Verstappen ‘realistic’ about his chances of challenging Lewis Hamilton

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen says he is „realistic“ about his chances of battling for the title against Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes this year.

The Dutchman, 23, said he „did not want to hype things up“ after driving Red Bull’s new car for the first time at Silverstone on Wednesday.

„Mercedes must be the favourites still,“ Verstappen added.

He said the new car felt „normal“ on his first few laps but it was too soon to say if it would be competitive.

Verstappen and new team-mate Sergio Perez completed a so-called ‘filming day’ test, where teams are limited to 100km and have to run on different tyres from the ones used for races.

Red Bull have been secretive about their 2021 car, the RB16B, so far. They released extensive still photography and videos of the test, but there was not a single image of the 2021 car among them, as they apparently try to hide whatever technical innovations it features.

Verstappen said: „We drive on demo tyres so it will never feel how it’s going to feel on real tyres, so I never really base a lot of my findings on this.

„It’s more just to get the car out and run a few laps. It all felt normal. We just have to wait and see what happens in Bahrain once we have proper tyres under the car.“

The F1 teams will have three days of pre-season testing in Bahrain from 12-14 March, before the season starts on the same track two weeks later.

Verstappen added: „I am always very realistic and it makes no sense to talk about stuff now. We have to go to Bahrain and look at it there. In the first race we will know if we succeeded or not.

„I don’t like to talk it up at the moment. We know where we want to be and where we want to get to and that’s what we have to realise.“

Red Bull’s engine partner Honda has designed a new engine for this year, the Japanese company’s last before it quits F1 at the end of the season, and team principal Christian Horner described the car as „an extensive update“ of last year’s.

Aerodynamic changes to cars are unlimited into 2021 but all teams are limited by rules introduced for cost-saving reasons in the pandemic in terms of the changes they can make to structural and mechanical parts of the car from last season to this. Red Bull have refused to say on what parts of the car they have spent their two permitted development ‘tokens’.

In addition, rule changes aimed at cutting cornering speeds have limited the size of the floor at the rear of the car.

„The floor is still a big change,“ Verstappen said. „To try to recover all that downforce loss will be important. It is going to be interesting to see who did the best.

„At the moment of course I don’t know where we are. Mercedes was still the dominant car towards the end of the season so we of course know we have to keep improving.“

Last year, Verstappen finished third in the championship behind Hamilton and his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas.

Hamilton, seeking a world record eighth world title, has signed only a one-year contract with his team and Horner last week said that he expected Verstappen to be at the top of Mercedes’ list of potential replacements if the Briton decides to retire at the end of the season.

Verstappen, whose contract with Red Bull runs to 2023 but has an unspecified performance clause in it that could allow him to leave in certain circumstances, said: „I don’t know what Lewis is going to do. I just focus on myself and I am very focused on this year and trying to make it a success.

„It is so early in the season that those kinds of things I am not really thinking about at this stage.“

What does Perez think?

Verstappen’s new team-mate Sergio Perez also drove the car and said: „I can already see there is potential in it.“

Perez said the Red Bull was „quite different“ from the Racing Point he drove last year, which was a copy of the 2019 Mercedes. „I can already spot the strong front end of the car,“ he said.

Perez’s move means he has the chance to compare the Mercedes engine, which has set the standard throughout the sport’s hybrid era since 2014, with the Honda.

„They have done a lot of progress from what I have seen so far,“ he said. „They are up for it but whether that is enough to bridge the gap to the Mercs remains to be seen. We are pushing extremely hard and things are interesting.“

This is the 31-year-old Mexican’s first chance in a top team and he said: „Motivation is pretty high. It is a big opportunity for me and I am really excited about it and I will give everything I can.“

He said his target was to „over-deliver“ on the potential of the car and that, while he expected Verstappen to be „a massive benchmark in qualifying, my strength is in the races“.

„I am confident in my abilities,“ he added. „I just think it I a matter of time until I get on top of everything.“

bbc sport

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