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The 'little chink of worry' for Ferrari when it comes to Verstappen

Max Verstappen has dominated the start of the new F1 season so far. But what does he have left up his sleeve?

Verstappen Leclerc
To news overview © Getty Images/Red Bull Contentpool

Former F1 driver Johnny Herbert is confident Ferrari can make inroads into Max Verstappen's early season advantage although he does have one over-riding concern.

Verstappen has started the new campaign in as dominant a fashion as he finished a record-breaking 2023, scoring back-to-back wins in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia from pole position, spearheading one-two finishes with Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez.

Ferrari, and Charles Leclerc in qualifying especially, has at least posed a threat as the Monégasque has started second, highlighting the one-lap pace of the SF24, although so far he has been unable to challenge in the race, finishing fourth and third respectively.

Herbert, a veteran of 160 starts in F1 during his time in the sport and a highly respected pundit, believes "only Charles and Ferrari can challenge" Verstappen and Red Bull.

"The problem is the race situation," said Herbert, speaking to RacingNews365. "They are at least better off than they were before because their tyre deg is definitely under control. They can basically push the whole way through a race, so that's good, that's positive.

"It's still going to be down to the classic situation that the updates that come along have to make an impact, to improve the Ferrari, of course, but the impact of getting closer and putting Max and Red Bull under pressure.

"Equally they (Red Bull) are going to be doing very similar things but it's who can do a bigger job. Ferrari should be able to do so just because Red Bull is ahead of the game anyway, and ahead of the pack."

Max and RB20 in total harmony

As to whether Ferrari can give Verstappen a run for his money, Herbert declared it "possible", but there is a fly in the ointment.

"My only little chink of worry is that I don't think we've seen the best of Max this season anyway because he doesn't need to show it," assessed Herbert. "That's the worry, that he still has something in his back pocket where he can go 'Okay, you think you're closer, there's another couple of tenths'.

"I think that's probably the only thing that's going to be a little bit more of a headache for Charles and Ferrari, and for when Carlos comes back, because he (Verstappen) is so comfortable in the car, and they are in total harmony together.

"I have said this many times over the last couple of years, but it is still a very rare thing to see someone so at ease with his driving in the car, and we still haven't seen the best of Max anyway.

"I know there's been all the chit-chat over the advantage they (Red Bull) have, and all the teams have said 'Well, they've done a better job'. And that's all it's down to, that they've done a much smarter job than everybody else.

"But there are smart people in Ferrari that I think can challenge. Can they challenge for the championship? That's probably the biggest question but I'm not sure they'll be able to do it quick enough to stop Max going on to win another one."

Enjoy what you're seeing

Verstappen's level of dominance is arguably damaging for the sport at present following a period when it was on the rise under Liberty Media's ownership.

Herbert insists, though, that what Verstappen and Red Bull are achieving at present simply has to be admired.

"We're still seeing the incredible Adrian Newey and his team come up with the next best ideas," said Herbert. "It's been those little bits they've always been able to find.

"But at least Ferrari has been able to improve on the situation it was in last year when they were quick but they were awful in a race. That now seems to be better, and their strategy so far seems to be better. It's just a little movement in the right direction from a Ferrari point of view.

"But it's just the wow factor with Max. Everything's working perfectly, and at the present time he's on top of his game, or at least on top of the best we've ever seen from Max. He's confident, he's got no worries, he feels he's unbeatable.

"Is it good for Formula 1? Well, you sort of say no, but you should also enjoy what you're seeing as well - actually we don't see him so much because he has always disappeared!

"But it is a very special thing for someone to have this skill that he has. In the dry, the wet, or any difficult situation, as we've seen with Lewis (Hamilton) and Fernando (Alonso), you should enjoy it as well. You just hope everybody else will get closer to challenge them, and I think they will."

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