Red Bull-Honda is a “different animal” going into the 2021 Formula 1 season, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton has warned.
Red Bull has never taken a championship fight to Mercedes in the F1 hybrid era, too often starting a season on the back foot before improving to race-winning form too late to mount a title challenge.
But both Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas believe Red Bull is showing during 2021 winter testing that it will provide tougher opposition this season.
“They have had some really good running, both of the drivers have been looking quite strong,” said Hamilton of Red Bull.
“They’re going to be a different machine or animal this year with a really good strong line-up with the two drivers and a really good car.
“Having seen them win the last race, you can only assume they are going to be right there, if not at the front, at the first race and it’s going to be a great long battle with them throughout the year.”
Asked if he therefore saw Red Bull as favourite for 2021, Hamilton replied: “They can be favourites if they want, they’re looking strong. I don’t really focus on that kind of stuff.”
When asked the same question, Bottas cited differing fuel loads and engine modes as making proper comparisons impossible, but added: “I have a feeling it’s going to be close, that’s all I can say”.
Red Bull has so far been guarded about its prospects, although it was fastest on day one with Verstappen and again on the final morning with Sergio Perez, and has had a trouble-free run.
“Compared to last year it feels better,” Verstappen said when asked about Red Bull’s 2021 progress. “But I think we also improved our car a lot compared to the beginning of last year, even throughout the season last year.”
Mercedes was fastest on Saturday with Bottas, but has also lost running to a gearbox problem that wiped out its first session on Friday and also struggled with rear instability. Hamilton caused a red flag by spinning into the gravel on the second morning.
Bottas did feel that Mercedes made progress with its rear-end issues during his Sunday morning running.
“I feel like we’ve made some steps forward, obviously there’s always more to find and more to gain,” he replied when asked about that problem.
“We went in the right direction, and it felt better. Still not 100% happy with the car as we would never be at this early stage of the season.
“We keep working, we keep trying to get it to behave nicer and hopefully that way, be faster.
“It’s just completely unknown, where we are at the moment, with three days of testing, with the first day being compromised.”
He feels Mercedes has “made a decent recovery” from the Friday morning problem that meant he only did six laps of running in his first session.
“I can’t say that we fully achieved the mileage we wanted to get into three days but actually not that far off,” said Bottas.
“So, yesterday I feel like we’ve made 95% most out of it and today I would say 100%.
“We had a really solid day today with a good amount of laps and and quality laps and quality tests.
“So considering what happened on day one, I’m pleased for that.
“But now it’s time to turn that data into performance somehow in the next two weeks before the race.”
Hamilton again dismissed any suggestion that he or Mercedes would be worried by how its test has gone.
“I don’t waste time worrying, that deters you from finding the solution, so we’re just working hard and focusing on getting through the short amount of testing we have and trying to be as efficient as possible with it,” he said.
“When it doesn’t go smoothly, it’s better that it doesn’t go smooth now and goes smooth once we get into the racing.
“So this is the perfect time for us to find the issues and have the problems, so I welcome that and everyone’s just keeping their heads down.
“Nobody is particularly fazed by it, we’re a multi championship-winning team and we know how to pull together and keep our head down and focus on the job.
“But without doubt it’s quite impressive to see the speed of some of the other teams.
“I think Red Bull are looking particularly strong and it’s great to see McLaren looking strong and also Renault [Alpine].
“I’m excited also because that means more fun.”
Hamilton reclaims the Mercedes from Bottas for the final four hours of running into Sunday evening.
“I don’t have any expectations on this afternoon, except for just hoping that we can get through the programme and have a better understanding of the car,” said the world champion.
“Valtteri’s had some good running. And I think it’s got the car to quite a good place.
“It’d be interesting to see that and just understand the tyres a little bit more.”