MANAMA • Lewis Hamilton's team chief Toto Wolff is confident that champions Mercedes can bounce back from a poor pre-season test and fight for victory in Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix.
The Formula One season returns this weekend in Sakhir, the start of a record 23-race campaign which also sees the Singapore Grand Prix taking place on Oct 3 after it was cancelled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Austrian boss Wolff, who conceded that the team had suffered a "tough test" in testing earlier this month, said he believed his outfit would draw on their experience and strengths to recover as Hamilton goes in pursuit of an unprecedented eighth drivers' title.
"This team's biggest strengths are our people and our values and after a tough time, I know that we can fight back stronger," he said.
"It was a tricky three days - the W12 car wasn't as stable, predictable or planted as some of our rivals - and Red Bull looked strong on both the long and the short runs, but as always with testing, it's difficult to be certain of true performance."
Hamilton and teammate Valtteri Bottas had complained of instability at the rear of the new W12.
The innovative dual-axis steering mechanism introduced on last year's car has also been outlawed by F1's powerbrokers, and new regulations governing the cars' floors seem to have thrown the reigning champions off their stride.
As Max Verstappen and his new Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez ran smoothly through 369 trouble-free laps in testing, Mercedes struggled to complete 304, Hamilton spinning off twice and suffering gearbox problems.
However, the Silver Arrows have a history of hiding their true pace over the winter before blowing their rivals out of the water at the first race, so it would be no surprise to see them remain at the front in Bahrain.
While Wolff and Mercedes pledged to recover, chief rivals and - for some paddock observers, the favourites - Red Bull played down the potential of their dominant show in testing at the Bahrain International Circuit, where this weekend's race takes place.
"I know people are excited but Mercedes are still the favourites," said Verstappen, who hopes to end Hamilton's run of six drivers' titles in seven years with Mercedes.
13 Wins in 17 races by Mercedes last season, 11 of which were recorded by champion Lewis Hamilton.
"How can they not be when they have won seven world championships in a row?"
The prospect of a long-awaited wheel-to-wheel 'battle royal' between the sport's most outstanding drivers in Hamilton and Verstappen, notwithstanding Fernando Alonso's return, will be welcomed by F1 fans worldwide.
But seven-time world champion Hamilton remains the one to beat.
Mercedes won 13 of the 17 races in a Covid-19 affected season last year, the Briton triumphing 11 times and Verstappen winning only twice. The former also broke Michael Schumacher's record of 91 wins last season with 95 victories, and equalled the German great's mark of seven world titles.
Hamilton is sure to be challenged not only by Verstappen and Perez, but Bottas and a much-improved McLaren, having switched to Mercedes power this season, are also expected to be very close behind.
McLaren's recruitment of Daniel Ricciardo to join Lando Norris will give them greater competitive experience while Carlos Sainz's switch to succeed four-time champion Sebastian Vettel should re-invigorate Ferrari after a dismal 2020.
Vettel, in turn, may need patience with Aston Martin as will returning two-time champion Alonso at Alpine.
Crowds could return, at least for the later grands prix, after most of 2020 was spent racing behind closed doors due to the pandemic, and experimental Saturday 'sprint qualifying' races are set to feature with points awarded.
The Bahrain Grand Prix is limiting attendances to those who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 or have recovered from the virus.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, XINHUA