Melbourne will see 'different' Verstappen as Mercedes hope for progress
The Formula One grid will see a "different" Max Verstappen at the Australian Grand Prix, according to Helmut Marko.
Those are foreboding words for the two-time defending world champion's rivals, among which only his Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez can be considered a serious challenger following the first two races of the season.
Red Bull claimed one-twos in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, doing so in dominant fashion as Verstappen prevailed in the season opener before Perez won from pole in Jeddah.
Verstappen recovered from 15th, his qualifying hindered by a driveshaft failure, to finish second in Saudi Arabia.
But Red Bull consultant Marko expects Verstappen to produce a stronger performance at Albert Park.
"He wasn't 100 per cent fit," Marko told F1-Insider after Verstappen had battled illness in the build up to the race.
"However, he is now doing everything he can to maximise performance next time.
"We will therefore see a different Verstappen in Australia."
While Red Bull are the clear class of the field, Mercedes remain a long way off their former glories, though boss Toto Wolff has reason for optimism following fourth and fifth-place finishes for George Russell and Lewis Hamilton in Saudi Arabia and signs of progress at their factory.
"The signs we are seeing back at the factory are promising," said Wolff. "We have got to take it step by step, though, and won't get carried away until we see performance translated into lap time on track.
"The competitive order behind Red Bull is tight, with small margins having a big effect on points scored. There remains a significant gap to the front and that is ultimately what we are interested in closing."
A Red Bull-Alonso hat-trick?
The only man who has come close to challenging Red Bull is Aston Martin's Fernando Alonso, who got past Perez at the start in Saudi Arabia and briefly led.
He has back-to-back third-place finishes. If he, Verstappen and Perez share the podium again, it would be first time since 2015 with the same three drivers in the top three in the first three races of the year in Formula One (Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel).
A third straight one-two for Red Bull would mark the first time they have achieved such a feat and make them to sixth team to do so.
Oscar Piastri is the only Australian on the grid, having replaced compatriot Daniel Ricciardo at McLaren.
McLaren have yet to score a point in a difficult start to the season, but Piastri qualified an encouraging ninth in Saudi Arabia before early pit stops for front wing damage for him and team-mate Lando Norris hindered their respective races.
But his qualifying performance in Jeddah offers hope he can score his first F1 point at his home grand prix, with team principal Andrea Stella praising the rookie.
"We have seen really strong progress by Oscar," Stella told Autosport. "Obviously, Lando is a complete certainty. So we know that Lando is there.
"If you look back, already in FP1 he [Piastri] was a little bit more competitive than Bahrain, then FP2 closer, then FP3 pretty much a match for Lando, capitalising in qualifying, and then very strong in the race.
"For me, I see more the sense of constant progression, which is ultimately the plan that we have with Oscar."
1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 44
2. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) 43
3. Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin) 27
4. George Russell (Mercedes) 21
5. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) 20
1. Red Bull 87
2. Mercedes 41
3. Aston Martin 35
4. Ferrari 26
5. Alpine 8