F1 returns: How close are Red Bull and Mercedes going to be at season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix?

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Red Bull boss Christian Horner has warned it would be “foolish” to underestimate Mercedes’ powers of recovery for the start of the F1 season after a difficult pre-season test for the world champions, while Max Verstappen insists the challengers are not seeing themselves as Bahrain GP favourites.

The build-up to F1’s season-opening weekend is being dominated by debate about whether Red Bull’s impressive pacesetting form in Bahrain testing will translate into near-parity or even a timesheet lead against Mercedes, F1’s dominant reigning champions of the past seven years, in Bahrain.

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Mercedes, who completed fewer testing laps than any team, have said they believe they are playing catch-up to Red Bull after experiencing early balance problems with their new W12.

But Red Bull boss Horner, speaking to Sky Sports F1, insisted that “no one is getting too excited here at the moment” despite acknowledging that they enjoyed a successful first test with the new RB16B.

“Mercedes’ test was probably a bit scrappy by their standards, but they are such a quality team it would be very foolish to underestimate them and their ability to bounce back,” Horner told The F1 Show.

“We saw that a couple of years ago where they looked to be underperforming in Barcelona [testing] and won very comfortably the first race in Australia.”

Speaking in a Red Bull preview, Max Verstappen was similarly cautious about reading too much into the possible pecking order for the season-opening round.

“I know people are excited and think we are just saying this, but Mercedes are still the favourites – how can they not be when they have won seven world championships in a row,” asked Verstappen.

“I’m sure Mercedes also want people to think we are the favourites and put the pressure on us but we are just focused on ourselves.

“You can be sure that everyone in this team and at Honda is pushing to beat them and anyone else who may be quick this year. I see every season as a new opportunity to beat them, but we would be stupid to expect that fight to be easy and look at testing and think we are ahead.”

Verstappen won the final Grand Prix of 2020 at a canter but Red Bull, despite four title doubles in 2010-13, have only once in their F1 history started a new campaign with a race victory – 10 years ago in 2011.

But after a fast and reliable test in Bahrain, Red Bull are nonetheless feeling optimistic about their preparations for what they hope will be a sustained title challenge to Mercedes.

Horner added: “It’s good though for us to be going down to the race in Bahrain with a decent amount of mileage, a reasonable feeling from the car and now all focus is on trying to make the car quicker, rather than fix problems.”

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