Max Verstappen is optimistic he is in a strong position to defend his Formula 1 world title this season, but he and his Red Bull team expect a much stronger challenge from Mercedes and Ferrari.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner also stressed that drivers’ right of expression must be protected after the FIA announced it would ban political statements. Horner said, “We don’t want to take on a group of robots with no opinion.”
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Verstappen spoke at Red Bull’s unveiling of the 2023 RB19 livery in New York, where the team also announced its upcoming partnership with Ford. The manufacturer will return to F1 in 2026 as an engine partner to Red Bull in the team’s recently created Red Bull Powertrains division. When Honda left the sport in 2021, the team created its own engine building division.
Verstappen dominated the 2022 season, winning 15 of 22 races and taking the title in Japan with four to go, while teammate Sergio Pérez took two wins. However, the world champion plays down the fact that Red Bull enters the season as favourites.
“I don’t think about being the favourite, you have to keep working and improving,” he said. “If you’re not, they’ll catch up and pass you. As a team we are constantly trying to find performance and we want to keep winning, that’s why we are in Formula 1. Of course we are optimistic, but we have to keep working.
The RB18 was class of the peloton last year, but the team lost development time in the wind tunnel ahead of this season as it was found to have exceeded its 2021 budget cap. 10%, was announced last year.
Horner expects a much closer fight this season. “This year is going to be much tougher, much tougher,” he said. “The regulations are relatively stable, the grid will grow together, we have very capable rivals, so I expect it to be much more competitive. We can only focus on optimizing our own capabilities.
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 the drivers, in particular Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, became increasingly open about issues such as racism, diversity and the environment. In 2020, Hamilton wore a t-shirt commemorating Breonna Taylor, the black woman who was shot by Kentucky police in her home. It read: ‘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 matter has drawn criticism from drivers and teams and has reportedly not been welcomed by F1 owners. Horner felt the FIA needed to ensure a common ground for drivers to have their say.
“At Red Bull, we have never stopped our drivers from having their freedom of speech or their freedom of expression or their ability to speak their mind,” he said. “You have one vote. It’s about finding a balance. Everyone has a voice and this should not be suppressed, but it should be done responsibly.
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Verstappen fought a tooth-and-nail battle with Hamilton for the title in 2021, which was decided under controversial circumstances at the season finale in Abu Dhabi. However, last year under new regulations Mercedes produced an uncompetitive car which struggled for pace and struggled with serious porpoise issues in the first half of the season. Hamilton failed to win a season-long race for the first time in his F1 career. He finished five second places and his teammate George Russell took the team’s first and only victory in Brazil.
Mercedes are optimistic they have resolved the issues with their car and can challenge. Hamilton’s contract with the team ends this year but he is expected to stay in F1 on a multi-year contract with Mercedes. The team will unveil its car at Silverstone on February 15, with the season opener taking place in Bahrain on March 5.
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