George Russell fears Max Verstappen’s Red Bull will be in a “league of their own” at Formula One’s opening race of the season in Bahrain.
Verstappen will start the new campaign on Sunday as the overwhelming favourite to take his third consecutive world crown after he and Red Bull impressed in testing.
Mercedes finished third in the constructors’ standings last year, but despite solving their porpoising woes, there are low expectations they will be in a position to battle at the front this weekend, and possibly this season.
However, the Englishman, 25, has not given up hope that the Silver Arrows will be able to haul themselves back into contention as the year progresses.
“It’s going to be a challenging weekend if we want to try and fight for that victory,” said Russell.
“It’s definitely fair to say Red Bull are in a league of their own this weekend. It will be a nice fight for second place, probably between Ferrari and Aston Martin.
“We’ve fundamentally got all of the same guys, and they haven’t forgotten how to build a fast race car.
“I absolutely believe we are going to close that gap, and there’s no reason why we can’t fight as the season hots up.”
Russell took Mercedes’ sole victory last season following an impressive opening campaign alongside Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes.
The younger Briton also outscored his more illustrious team-mate.
However, Russell continued: “Those statistics against a guy like Lewis are pretty irrelevant.
“He has achieved more than 100 poles and victories, and last year’s car was challenging to drive.
“For sure, I was pleased with my own personal performance. But Lewis is an animal and he just keeps on fighting, keeps on going and he never gives up, so he is going to come back fighting even more than last year, and I am excited to have that challenge.
“But ultimately the two of us are looking at the top step on the podium, and not just the number one spot in the team.”