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 are expecting a much stronger challenge from Mercedes and Ferrari.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner also stressed that the right of drivers to express themselves must be maintained after the FIA announced a ban on political statements, with Horner stating: “We don’t want a load of robots with no opinions. go running.
Related: Ford will return to Formula 1 from the 2026 season with Red Bull
Verstappen was speaking at the launch of Red Bull’s livery for their 2023 RB19 in New York, where the team also announced their upcoming partnership with Ford. The manufacturer will return to F1 in 2026 as Red Bull’s engine partner in the team’s recently established Red Bull Powertrains division. The team set up its own engine manufacturing division when Honda left the sport in 2021.
Verstappen dominated the season in 2022, winning 15 of 22 races and taking the title in Japan with four to go, while his teammate, Sergio Pérez, took two victories. However, the world champion has played down Red Bull going into the season as favourites.
“I don’t think I’m the favourite, you have to keep working and improving,” he said. “If you’re not, they’ll catch up and outrun you. As a team we keep trying to find performance and we want to keep winning, that’s why we are in F1. We are obviously optimistic, but we have to keep working.”
The RB18 was the class of the course last year, but the team had wind tunnel development time deducted before this season was caught for breaching its 2021 budget cap. Sporting punishment, a reduction in 10%, was announced last year.
Horner expects a much closer fight this season. “This year is going to be a lot tougher, a lot tighter,” he said. “The regulations are relatively stable, the grid will converge, we have some very capable rivals, so I expect it to be a lot more competitive. All we can do is focus on trying to get the best out of our abilities.”
In December last year, the FIA updated its sporting code, prohibiting drivers from making “political, religious or personal” statements or comments without authorisation. The decision came after drivers, especially Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, were increasingly vocal on issues of racism, diversity and the environment. In 2020, Hamilton wore a T-shirt commemorating Breonna Taylor, the black woman killed in his home by police in Kentucky. It stated: “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 been criticized by drivers and teams and is believed not to have been welcomed by F1 owners. Horner felt that the FIA needed to ensure a middle ground where drivers could express themselves.
“We at Red Bull have never prevented our drivers from having the freedom of speech or the freedom of their opinions or their ability to express what they think,” he said. “They have a voice. It’s about finding a balance. Everyone has a voice and this should not be suppressed, but it must be done responsibly.
Related: F1 teams have veto right over new grid entries, FIA confirms
Verstappen fought tooth and nail with Hamilton for the title in 2021, decided in controversial circumstances at the season finale in Abu Dhabi. However, last year, under the new regulations, Mercedes produced an uncompetitive, pace-struggling car with serious relocation problems for the first half of the season. Hamilton failed to win a race in a season for the first time in his F1 career. He had five second-place finishes and his teammate, George Russell, took his first and only team win in Brazil.
Mercedes are optimistic, they have solved the problems with their car and will be able to challenge. Hamilton’s contract with the team ends this year, but he is widely expected to stay in F1 on a multi-year deal at Mercedes. The team will launch its car at Silverstone on 15 February, with the season opener in Bahrain on 5 March.