Max Verstappen expects tougher Ferrari and Mercedes fight in F1 title defence

Max Verstappen is optimistic he is in a strong position to defend his Formula One world title this season but he and his Red Bull team expect a much stronger challenge from Mercedes and Ferrari.

The Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner, has also emphasised that the drivers’ right to express themselves must be maintained after the FIA announced it is to ban political statements, with Horner saying: “We don’t want a load of robots without opinions going racing.”

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Verstappen was speaking at Red Bull’s launch of the livery for their 2023 RB19 in New York, where the team also announced their forthcoming partnership with Ford. The manufacturer will return to F1 in 2026 as an engine partner with Red Bull at the team’s recently established Red Bull Powertrains division. The team created their own engine manufacturing division when Honda left the sport in 2021.

Verstappen dominated the season in 2022, winning 15 of the 22 races and sealing the title in Japan with four to go, while his teammate, Sergio Pérez, took two victories. However, the world champion played down the fact that Red Bull go into the season as favourites.

“I don’t think about being the favourites, you have to keep on working and improving,” he said. “If you are not, they will catch up and they will overtake you. As a team we keep trying to find performance and we want to keep winning, that’s why we are in F1. Of course we are optimistic but we have to keep on working.”

The RB18 was the class of the field last year but the team have been deducted wind tunnel development time before this season having been found to have breached the 2021 budget cap. The sporting punishment, a 10% reduction, was announced last year.

Horner expects a far closer fight this season. “This year will be a lot tougher, a lot tighter,” he said “The regulations are relatively stable, the grid will converge, we have some very capable rivals so I fully expect it to be a lot more competitive. All we can do is focus on trying to achieve the best out of our own capability.”

In December last year the FIA updated its sporting code, banning drivers from making “political, religious or personal” statements or comments without permission. The decision came after drivers, particularly Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, were increasingly outspoken on issues of racism, diversity and the environment. In 2020, Hamilton wore a T-shirt remembering Breonna Taylor, the black woman shot in her home by police in Kentucky. It stated: “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” and the incident prompted a review of the regulations by the FIA.

The governing body’s crackdown on the issue has been criticised by drivers and teams and is understood to have not been welcomed by F1’s owners. Horner felt the FIA needed to ensure a middle ground where drivers remained able to express themselves.

“We at Red Bull have never constrained our drivers from having a freedom of speech or the freedom of their opinions or their ability to speak their minds,” he said. “They do have a voice. It is a matter of finding a balance. Everybody has a voice and that should not be suppressed but it does have to be done responsibly.”

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Verstappen had a tooth-and-nail fight with Hamilton for the title in 2021, decided in controversial circumstances at the season finale in Abu Dhabi. However, last year under the new regulations Mercedes produced an uncompetitive car, struggling for pace and with severe porpoising issues for the first half of the season. Hamilton failed to win a race over a season for the first time in his F1 career. He did claim five second places and his teammate, George Russell, scored his first and the team’s only win in Brazil.

Mercedes are optimistic they have solved the problems with their car and will be able to challenge. Hamilton’s contract with the team ends this year but he is widely expected to stay on in F1 with a multi-year deal at Mercedes. The team will launch their car at Silverstone on 15 February, with the season opener in Bahrain on 5 March.