Formula One pre-season testing has drawn to its conclusion, and Red Bull has emerged as the potential dark horse for when the first race swings around in less than two weeks.
Despite only completing the sixth-highest total for laps completed, Red Bull seemed significantly more comfortable with their car than defending champions Mercedes.
Max Verstappen topped the timesheets in the final day of testing, one-tenth quicker than Yuki Tsunoda in the AlphaTauri.
Before Verstappen got behind the wheel, teammate Sergio Perez had ended the morning session with the fastest lap time.
It is promising signs for the Milton Keynes outfit, who on paper looks to have overtaken Mercedes as the team to chase ahead of the start of the season.
Mercedes were expected to dominate the timesheets on both qualifying simulations and long-run stints. However, the team admits they are baffled by their lack of pace compared to Red Bull.
“We’ve made a bit of progress with the balance on higher fuel and the car was more predictable but we can see from the data we’ve collected over the last few days that on race pace, we’re not as quick as Red Bull,” said Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin.
“The lower fuel work was a more confusing picture. We didn’t gain enough and we need to go and look at our approach as far too many cars were ahead of us on pace today.”
Each team except Mercedes found nearly 1.5s in one-lap performance between day one and day three. Mercedes seemed to flatline its potential, struggling to make any gains over the test.
On top of their pace deficit, neither Lewis Hamilton nor Valtteri Bottas was overly satisfied with their feeling in the car.
“Probably everywhere. I wouldn’t call it a struggle necessarily, just not quick enough,” said Hamilton when asked what Mercedes’ biggest struggle looked to be. “Seems globally through the lap; there’s not one particular point more than the other.
“[I’m] thankful it’s over because I’ve just never been a massive fan of testing, I just love racing, but on the other hand it might have been good to have more days. It’s probably the only time I would have ever asked for more days. But yeah, lots of work to do, it’s going to be tough.”
Bottas returned a similar sentiment: “I’m still not entirely comfortable.
“I don’t think the package is quite there yet in terms of performance but I have no doubt it will be.”
Rumours of Mercedes sandbagging has been churning since day one. The team has often withheld from showing their true potential in testing and each time turn up to the season opener with the quickest car.
That has Verstappen not taking anything from the test for granted.
“The amount of times Mercedes has topped the testing in the last few years is not very high,” Verstappen said. “It is not about pure performance.
“I had positive feelings in the car, but we will find out at the first race where we are. It has been a good few days now, but we always improve and try to be better.
“I don’t think we are the favourites if Mercedes wins that many championships in a row. I think it is still the same as before the test.”
The F1 paddock now has a two-week break before the first grand prix of the year at Bahrain on March 26-28.