Ferrari were the closest challenger to Red Bull over one lap in Bahrain, but come the race, George Russell believes that Fernando Alonso will become the biggest threat.
Aston Martin’s performance with Alonso at the wheel had created a huge buzz surrounding the team heading into qualifying, with the Silverstone squad trying to calm talk that they could even be a contender for pole position.
As it turned out, Aston Martin indeed did not have a pole performance in them, but Alonso nonetheless lines-up P5 after lapping only six-tenths shy of polesitter Max Verstappen, a monumental improvement for the team that finished P7 in the 2022 Constructors’ standings.
But, with the first race of the season next up, Aston Martin head into conditions where they believe the AMR23 will thrive, Alonso saying that they have enjoyed “very low degradation” during their race simulations.
Ferrari meanwhile are not so confident, Charles Leclerc believing that race pace is the weak point for his team.
And so Russell, who in the Mercedes will line-up alongside Alonso on row three, believes it is the Spaniard who we should all be keeping a close eye on come Sunday.
“To be honest, Fernando is probably more of a dark horse than Ferrari,” he told media in Bahrain.
That being said, Russell expected Aston Martin to be even faster than they ultimately were in qualifying, less than a tenth having covered Alonso, Russell and Lewis Hamilton who starts P7 in the sister Mercedes. Alonso’s Aston Martin team-mate Lance Stroll will launch from P8.
“I was expecting a little bit more from them, to be honest,” Russell admitted.
“I was a little bit surprised we were so close to them for all the pace they showed. I guess it was a good session for us.
“It’s interesting how they were so competitive in practice but ultimately qualifying is the first time you truly get a real read.
“I would say, going into this weekend, this is roughly where we expected to be.”
The situation for Mercedes then so far seems very similar to last season, where Ferrari often had the beating of them over one lap, but in the race Mercedes could cause them some headaches.
And so Russell feels well-placed for history to repeat itself in that regard on race day.
“Their race pace is always a little bit worse than their qualifying pace,” said Russell.
“Us is the opposite. So, qualifying three-tenths behind [Ferrari] when they’ve probably been the fastest car in a single lap, I think we’re in a good place to fight for that P3.”
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And Russell said that Mercedes were able to bring themselves into the mix after post-practice setup changes that instead of yielding the tenth expected, boosted them by half a second or more.
The challenge for Mercedes then is to understand why this happened for future reference.
“The change we made, we expected to find probably a tenth,” Russell stated. “We found maybe five or six tenths. We need to understand why that is.
“Obviously, that is positive news, but we need to understand it. After FP3, we didn’t really focus on understanding it. We just focused on maximising performance. So, that’s going to be a job for Monday.”