Motor racing-Red Bull are still 'out in the distance', says Hamilton

Formula One F1 - Pre-Season Testing - Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir, Bahrain - February 23, 2024 Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton during a press conference REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

(Reuters) - Formula One champions Red Bull and Max Verstappen, dominant last year, will start the season next week still well ahead of the rest on the evidence of testing in Bahrain, rivals said.

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.

"I think Red Bull clearly are out in the distance," Mercedes' seven times world champion Lewis Hamilton told reporters on Friday, the third and final day of pre-season testing.

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.

That said, others agreed they were still playing a game of catch-up.

"There's one car that seems to have found a big step," McLaren team principal Andrea Stella told reporters on Thursday. "Unfortunately, (that's) the car that was already the quickest last year."

Ferrari's Charles Leclerc said his initial feeling was that his car was much more driveable than last year's but "Red Bull unfortunately remains quite a bit ahead."

"Red Bull are the favourites and definitely a step ahead of everyone else. That was to be expected," commented Mercedes' George Russell.

"I think we're in a good position, we had a decent car at the end of last season and I think 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," said McLaren's Lando Norris.

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 team mate 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," Verstappen said of the first day. "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," added the Dutch 26-year-old.

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Toby Davis)

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