George Russell says he does not expect Mercedes to challenge for victory at the Formula 1 season opener in Bahrain next week.
Russell said he believes Red Bull are the team to beat based on the results of the first two days of pre-season testing.
He said: “We definitely believe that eventually we will have a car capable of taking part in this fight.
“Whether we have it next weekend in Bahrain I think might be a bit of a stretch.”
Russell’s comments came as Red Bull world champion Max Verstappen continued to look impressive for the second consecutive day at the Sahir circuit.
“They look very strong, very stable,” Russell said. “The car looks very strong and obviously Max is showing very well.
“So I think realistically it will be a stretch next week. But there’s no reason why we can’t eventually get there at some point this year and we’ve always seen the strength of Mercedes and the pace of their development. Yes, yes, definitely. I believe in this”.
Pre-season testing times are notoriously an unreliable indicator of form, as fuel load, engine modes and other variables can have a significant impact on lap times.
Verstappen finished the day second fastest behind Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu, who went out late in the evening on the softest tires for what appeared to be a qualifying simulation.
Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso was third fastest ahead of Alpha Tauri’s Nick de Vries, another qualifier on the softest tyres.
Russell was 13th fastest for Mercedes, with teammate Lewis Hamilton 15th.
Mercedes enters 2023 after a difficult year that ended a streak of eight consecutive constructors’ titles dating back to 2014.
They won just one race – with Russell at the penultimate Grand Prix of the season in Brazil – and finished third behind Red Bull and Ferrari.
But Russell said the team was in better shape than last year, when they discovered during pre-season testing that their car was badly affected by aerodynamic bounce – or spoilage – which compromised their season.
“Entry phase [в кут] has been improved,” Russell said. “It’s no secret when you watch the boards and the video that we struggle a little bit with balance, struggle a lot in the middle corner.
“But I think it’s a balance that’s probably easier to work out than we had last year. So while it’s still a limitation, I think it’s a good problem to have.”
Team principal Toto Wolff said it was “essentially wasted”, adding: “The car was out of order this morning and we just didn’t find the set-up for these hot conditions.”
Wolff said rivals Red Bull and Ferrari were “quick – no surprise”, but he added there was “a sense of excitement because we got it wrong last year”.
McLaren is also downplaying its hopes for the start of the season.
McLaren Racing chief executive Zak Brown said: “We know we have set some development targets that we have not met. We thought it best to be honest about it.
“Like everyone else, great development awaits us. So what we see around the corner is encouraging, but I think we’ll go into the first race outside of our projected targets and it’s hard to see what that means for us to be on the grid.”
Fastest time, day two, pre-season testing, Bahrain
1 Zhou Guanyu (Chi) Alfa Romeo one minute 31.610 seconds *
2 Max Verstappen (Ned) Red Bull one minute 31.650 seconds
3 Fernando Alonso (Spa) Aston Martin 1:32.205
4 Nick De Vries (Ned) Alpha Taurus 1:32.214 *
5 Nico Hulkenberg (Germany) Haas 1:32.466 *
6 Carlos Sainz (Spa) Ferrari 1:32.486
7 Logan Sargent (USA) Williams 1:32.549
8 Charles Leclerc (Mon) Ferrari 1:32.725
9 Oscar Piastre (Australia) McLaren 1:33.175
10 Pierre Gasly (Fra) Alpine 1:33.186
11 Kevin Magnussen (Dan) Haas 1:33.442
12 Esteban Ocon (France) Alpine 1:33.490
13 George Russell (Great Britain) Mercedes 1:33.654
14 Sergio Perez (Mexico) Red Bull 1:33.751
15 Lewis Hamilton (Great Britain) Mercedes 1:33.954
16 Lando Norris (Great Britain) McLaren 1:35.522
17 Yuki Tsunoda (Japan) Alpha Taurus 1:35.708
* = time set for softer tire C4; all other time on C3 (average grip and durability)