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Hamilton: Red Bull clearly are out in the distance

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World Champions Red Bull and Max Verstappen, dominant last year, will start the season next week still well ahead of the rest of the chasing pack on the evidence of three days of Formula 1 testing in Bahrain, rivals have chorussed in dismay.

Red Bull won 21 of 22 races in 2023 and are clear favourites, with Verstappen chasing his fourth successive championship. The Milton Keynes-based team, celebrating their 20th anniversary this year, have also won 38 of the last 44 grands prix.

Verstappen topped the timesheets on the opening day but Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz was quickest on Thursday, although teams are running through their own test programmes with different fuel levels and settings.

Echoing most of the other F1 drivers, Mercedes’ seven times world champion Lewis Hamilton told reporters on Friday, the third and final day of pre-season testing: “I think Red Bull clearly are out in the distance.

“I am still 100% focused on finishing on a high with this team and have absolutely faith in everything going on in the team – and we will try to close the gap to the Red Bull somehow,” added Hamilton of his final year with Mercedes, before his move to Ferrari.

That said, others agreed they were still playing a game of catch-up, including Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc who told reporters that his initial feeling was that his car was much more driveable than last year’s but “Red Bull unfortunately remains quite a bit ahead.”

Ditto the opinion of Mercedes driver George Russell: “Red Bull are the favourites and definitely a step ahead of everyone else. That was to be expected.”

McLaren’s Lando Norris echoed his fellow Birton: “I think we’re in a good position, we had a decent car at the end of last season. We’ve definitely taken some steps in the right direction but we’re still a very long way behind Red Bull and a long way behind Ferrari.”

Who can stop Verstappen from romping to the F1 title again this season?

BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN - FEBRUARY 21: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (1) Oracle Red Bull Racing RB20 on track during day one of F1 Testing at Bahrain International Circuit on February 21, 2024 in Bahrain, Bahrain. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images) // Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool // SI202402210908 // Usage for editorial use only //

McLaren team principal Andrea Stella told reporters in Bahrain. “There’s one car that seems to have found a big step. Unfortunately,  the car that was already the quickest last year.”

Mercedes finished runners-up overall last season, but a massive 451 points behind Red Bull, with Ferrari a close third and McLaren fourth.

Verstappen, who won a record 19 races last year with teammate Sergio Perez winning two, told reporters on Friday that the RB20 had behaved as expected: “I couldn’t really wish for more, I was actually wishing for less perhaps.

The Dutrch ace reported: “I did a lot of laps, everything went well, the balance was very nice… completed the whole programme without any problems. For sure the car is better than last year’s car but I think everyone on the grid has a better car than last year.”

Nevertheless, Red Bull set the 2024 F1 benchmark with the RB20, even Ferrari boss Fred Vasseur, whose cars stole the show albeit on the softest tyres available to seal the fictional ‘2024 F1 Testing World Championship‘ with their glory runs.

Fred said: We also have to stay calm with this, trust the feedback and know we have a lot to do on the development for sure Red Bull are ahead.”

At the same time, on the final day of 2024 F1 testing, it appears Red Bull decided to keep their powder dry for when it matters and nowhere to hide: Qualifying Q3 for the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix next Friday. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Additional Reporting by GP247)