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Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso puts it crystal clear and downright sobering: “Nineteen drivers already know they won’t be world champions this year. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I see Max Verstappen going to take his fourth world title.” The 42-year-old Alonso has already reconciled himself to a supporting role. “I expect Red Bull Racing to be even more dominant and harder to beat this year than last season,” said the Aston Martin driver.

To illustrate: Verstappen and teammate Sergio Pérez won 21 of 22 GPs last year, but Alonso is heavily impressed with the new ‘Bulls.

“The RB20 is a surprising design. Now that I have seen it in action I fear it will be very difficult for us to win a grand prix.”

It should be added to Alonso’s statements that the Spaniard already made the remarks after the first day of testing in Bahrain, during which Verstappen covered nearly three race distances.

Drivers usually know after just a few laps whether their new car is a winning weapon. Verstappen himself is obviously still holding his cards to his chest, but his satisfied look and relaxed attitude betray much. Here stands the driver to beat; the leading driver who already knows that the competition will have to work miracles to dethrone him.

“Qualifying here in Bahrain on Friday will give a first indication and after the first races we will know where we stand,” said Verstappen at the Bahrain International Circuit. “The car does everything I want and seems reliable and stable, but I’m not sure yet if we are fast enough. “Behind closed doors, the world champion has already revealed that the RB20 is the best car of his career.

Last year, Ferrari was the only team that could prevent Red Bull from winning all the races. Carlos Sainz triumphed on the streets of Singapore, where the RB19 did not perform.

“At that circuit, our car was not that great. We tackled those weaknesses so we will do better there this year,” warned Verstappen.

The big, iconic Ferrari starts the season humbly. “Step by step closing the gap,” is team principal Frederic Vasseur’s mission. “Of course we dream of title contention, but the gap was and is very big. Stopwatches don’t lie.”

“We are not facing any major issues and the car is behaving as we expected. That’s good news,” adds driver Charles Leclerc.

“Last year I experienced the worst F1 test week of my life here. After that we were behind the times. Now we know exactly where the strengths and weaknesses are. The basis is good. That offers perspective, but Red Bull is considerably ahead.”

Mercedes is also modest. Toto Wolff’s untouchable racing stable until 2021 is relieved that the new W15 is a car that behaves as was expected based on simulations.

“That was a different story in previous seasons,” team boss Wolff looks back. “Those cars were unpredictable, difficult to understand and fathom. We tried everything, but failed and hardly made any progress. It wasn’t working. That’s why we changed course and fundamentally altered the design.”

Wolff does not want to be too much optimistic. “The mood in the team is positive, but it’s all still preliminary. We are fighters and we know what we want: to make a car that is faster than the rest.”
Whether that succeeds is highly questionable, especially now that Mercedes knows that its relationship with seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton is nearing its end.

“We were not prepared for that. It’s not ideal,” Wolff admitted. “It was uncomfortable for a while, but we know each other well and are professionals. We are going to do everything we can to wave Lewis off with a milestone. He deserves that.”

Whether that milestone is an eighth world title? Hamilton doesn’t seem to believe in it. “The new car is a work in progress. Much more fun to drive. Clearly better than last year, but Red Bull is way ahead. It’s going to take time, but we have a good base to continue developing, growing and closing the gap.”

This post is originally from L’Équipe