George Russell has admitted Mercedes may not be in the running for victory in Bahrain next weekend, with Red Bull looking strong from the get-go in testing.
Max Verstappen topped the timesheets and clocked more laps than any other driver around Sakhir on Thursday, but while Mercedes also looked reliable up until Russell brought out the red flag after pulling over on the back straight on Friday, the ominous form of Red Bull has not gone unnoticed throughout the paddock.
Mercedes had been optimistic after the first day of running and had been running well through most of Day 2 before Russell’s issue, which the team later confirmed was a hydraulic problem that ended the Briton’s evening after 26 laps.
But given the ominous form of Red Bull on Thursday and Friday, Russell thinks they will be the team to beat heading into the season-opening weekend, even if Mercedes still have pace in hand.
“Every point of my career, I’ve always gone in believing that you need to take a rational view once you get to a track and you learn,” Russell told media including PlanetF1.com in Bahrain.
“I think we definitely believe eventually we will be [competitive] and we want to have a car capable of getting in that fight.
“Whether we’re going to have that next weekend in Bahrain? I think may be a bit of a stretch.
“They [Red Bull] look very strong, they look very stable, the car’s looking really strong and obviously, Max performing really well, so I think realistically it will be a stretch for next week.
“But there’s no reason why eventually we can’t get there at some point this year, and we’ve always seen the strength of Mercedes and their development rate. So yeah, definitely the belief is there.”
Russell admitted “alarm bells” had been sounding inside the Mercedes garage in pre-season testing last year, with porpoising plaguing the W13 as it bounced its way through the first part of the season.
Team boss Toto Wolff confirmed this has not been the case so far in testing, saying the issue has not reared its ugly head with the construction of a new car.
Russell acknowledged the new car feels better to drive than its predecessor, but the W14 will still need to find ultimate performance.
Toto Wolff and Christian Horner’s furious ‘change your ****ing car’ argument laid bare
Jacques Villeneuve questions Alpine line-up after exit of ‘huge loss’ Fernando Alonso
Toto Wolff confirms Mercedes ‘still hiding a little bit’ of performance in testing
“In terms of feeling, it feels a step in the right direction. But as we know, the sport is not all about feeling, it’s ultimately about lap time,” Russell said. “I think compared to this time 12 months ago, things are running a lot smoother.
“Obviously when we were here last year, there were a lot of alarm bells ringing with the porpoising, unsure how to solve it, was a bit lost, the car characteristics were not good.
“So I think things have been running much smoother, reliability has been strong so far to allow us to do the test programme.
“For sure, we’ve got things we need to improve with the car, but I would say generally speaking, we are roughly where we would have expected to be at this time of year.”
Additional reporting by Thomas Maher