Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has admitted that Red Bull appear to be the clear benchmark ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Red Bull and Ferrari topped Friday's practice timesheets in Sakhir, while Mercedes pair George Russell (half a second back) and Lewis Hamilton (more than a second adrift) had to settle for fourth and ninth respectively.
Amid his team's well-documented struggles with the W13, Wolff was asked whether he thinks Mercedes will be in the mix for victory this weekend, to which he gave a clear response.
"As it stands, when we make our assumptions based on the free practice sessions, no," Wolff told media, including RacingNews365.com in Bahrain on Saturday.
"I think Red Bull are in a league of their own, and then there's a bunch of teams that are in the corridor of fuel weight and engine modes.
"But it's great to see the teams like [Alfa Romeo] and [Alpine] are right there the free practice sessions, and this is what I've said – the regulations were made in order to bunch the field up, and that's what's going to happen."
Are Mercedes concerned about their title chances?
With both Wolff and Hamilton ruling out early-season victories on merit, the Mercedes boss was then asked if he has any worries about Mercedes challenging for titles in 2022.
"Again, purely based on assumptions, that we've seen in terms of pace, I don't think that we can match the leaders' performance at the moment," he said.
"I personally believe there are simple solutions to get the performance back, that start to crystallise, and [the season has] 23 races. Even if you lose a race or two, and you end up outside of the podium, nobody's protected against DNFs or crashes, and we've seen last year they played a big role.
"We will give it whatever we can, bring updates as quickly as we can, understand the car more, and try to find performance."
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Wolff also keen to "see the positives"
Despite the team's early struggles, Wolff is relishing the challenge ahead and has confidence that Mercedes will be able to draw on previous experiences to close back in on their F1 rivals – if they are indeed a step behind.
"We didn't always have the easiest of times," he added.
"We climbed our way back to a championship against a big engine performance of our competitor, and even last year, where we felt that we started much worse off, we still were able to take it all the way to the last race.
"If it were the case that we are on the back foot, we all know that we've done it before. In a way, it's a challenging situation, but you need to see the positives.
"Whatever we learn now is going to make us strong in the future. The regulations are meant to stay for a long time, so let's go for it!"
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