George Russell backs himself to beat in-form Max Verstappen and claim F1 title

George Russell expects Max Verstappen will be the man to beat at next Sunday’s season-opening race – but the Englishman has not given up hope on being crowned champion of the world.

Verstappen clocked the fastest time on day one, and, despite an oil leak restricting his running in Friday’s second session, he ended the running just four hundredths of a second behind pace-setter Zhou Guanyu.

The growing consensus in the paddock ahead of Saturday’s final day of testing is that Verstappen, who last year won 15 of the 22 rounds, could have the machinery to blow away his rivals once more.

Mercedes are desperate to bounce back from an underwhelming campaign in which Russell, in an impressive debut year for the Silver Arrows, registered the team’s only win.

Although Russell broke down with a hydraulic failure in the closing stages on Friday evening – restricting him to just 26 laps – the signs have been encouraging for the Briton and team-mate Lewis Hamilton, with Mercedes eradicating the porpoising woes which scuppered their last campaign.

“I definitely head into the season believing I can [win the championship],” said Russell, 25.

“At every point of my career I have gone in believing, but you need to take a rational view once you get to the track.

George Russell
George Russell in action for Mercedes on Friday (Frank Augstein/AP)

“We definitely believe that eventually we will have a car capable of getting into that fight.

“But Red Bull are looking very strong, very stable, and obviously Max is performing really well so realistically it will be a stretch for us next week.

“But there is no reason why we cannot get there eventually at some point this year. We have always seen in the past the strength of Mercedes’ development rate, so the belief is there.”

Russell took over testing duties from Hamilton after the lunch break in Bahrain. Hamilton completed 72 laps and finished eighth of 10 in the opening session, 1.5 seconds slower than Carlos Sainz in his Ferrari.

Carlos Sainz
Carlos Sainz finished fastest in the opening session on day two of testing (Frank Augstein/AP)

However, times in testing have to be treated with a pinch of salt as the teams trial different strategies and varying fuel levels.

Russell, who finished ahead of Hamilton in the standings last year, continued: “In terms of feeling, this car is a step in the right direction.

“When we were here last year there were a lot of alarm bells ringing with the porpoising. We were unsure how to solve it, we were lost, and the car characteristics were not good.

“But it has been smoother here, and reliability has been strong so that has allowed us to do the test programme.

“We have got things we need to improve on with the car, but I would say we are roughly where we would have expected to be at this time of the year.”