Max Verstappen has admitted that the pressure has been lifted off his shoulders after he claimed last year's F1 world title.
Red Bull driver Verstappen came out on top at the end of a fierce championship battle with Mercedes rival Lewis Hamilton in 2021, sealing the crown in dramatic and controversial circumstances at the Abu Dhabi finale.
As he prepares for his title-defending season amid all-new regulations, Verstappen has spoken about feeling slightly more relaxed, while stressing that he is as motivated and determined to succeed as ever before.
"I mean, that's what I worked for since I started racing," Verstappen told select media, including RacingNews365.com, when asked about having the number one on his cap.
"It was my dream to be first of all in the F1 paddock, but also to win the championship and, once you have achieved that, there's a lot of kind of pressure off.
"I'm still very motivated to win races and stuff, and hopefully, of course, I can win more championships, but I think that first one is always very important."
A "positive" feeling in the Red Bull camp
Verstappen and Red Bull continued where they left off in 2021 by topping the timesheets during pre-season testing for the new campaign, and the Dutchman spoke of a cautiously optimistic vibe within the team.
"We are positive, but we also don't know where we are, exactly – I guess time will tell," the 24-year-old said of their preparations.
"I hope, of course, that we're going to be really competitive, but it's not even about [the first] race weekend in general, it's more about how we are going to develop throughout the season, because with these new cars, there are still a lot of things to learn.
As for the challenge of the 2022-spec cars, which are much heavier than their predecessors, Verstappen said: "On a track like [Bahrain], where the tarmac is very rough, the tyres degrade quite quickly, so [overall] it doesn't feel - let's say - amazing compared to before.
"It's very different in the low speed, but the high speed is very nicely balanced. You have to deal with it and make sure you get around the corner with the weight you have.
"That's something I hope one day we can reduce, the car weight, instead always increasing it – it's a bit tricky."
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Are Ferrari the pre-season favourites?
Ferrari were another team to catch the eye throughout testing, as they racked up the mileage and regularly featured towards or at the top of the timesheets.
Verstappen is keen to see the Scuderia make the next step and join the fight at the front of the field, with "more teams" in the mix for title glory.
"They definitely had a very good winter test," said Verstappen of Ferrari.
"I don't need to label them as favourites or whatever, but you can see that they're very positive, which I think is good for Formula 1. I'm happy to see them delivering already a strong performance in winter testing.
"I hope, of course, that they will be there, up the front, and we have more of a battle with more teams up the front."
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