Red Bull chief Christian Horner has hailed the achievements of Lewis Hamilton – despite previously speaking down the Briton’s feats and attributing much of his success to his Mercedes car while talking up his own driver Max Verstappen.
Speaking last year, Horner declared that Red Bull’s No 1 driver Verstappen – a 10-time Grands Prix winner – is superior to seven-time world champion Hamilton, who has 95 race wins as well as unparalleled 98 pole positions.
The 47-year-old claimed that George Russell’s pace in the Mercedes at the Sakhir Grand Prix, although he only finished ninth in the race in Bahrain, proved that when Hamilton was absent with COVID-19.
Horner said: “Max and Lewis stand out for me, but while we absolutely should not be blind to all that Hamilton has achieved, he does have access to a good package while Max has to get more and more out of his car.
“You can see that by the fact that a driver from Williams qualified directly on the front row of the grid and almost won the race.
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“If someone had to get into Max’s car, if he had coronavirus, they would never reach his level of performance.”
It is not the first time Horner has hailed Verstappen as better than Hamilton, and the Briton said in response back in the summer of 2019: “I don’t compare myself with anyone, I don’t need to. I don’t really have an answer to these claims.
“Every once in a while someone needs certain attention. I think Max has been doing a great job and the last race was fantastic. It will be interesting to see how they do moving forward.”
But despite the other verbals between the duo, with Horner also hitting out at Hamilton after he clashed with Alex Albon at the Austrian Grand Prix last year, the Red Bull boss has now come out to lavish praise on the 36-year-old.
Red Bull have replaced Albon with Sergio Perez and are hoping that the Mexican and Verstappen can get the better of Hamilton in 2021 to deny him a fifth straight Drivers’ Championship.
And speaking about defending title-winner Hamilton, Horner told Sky Sports F1 that it will be a mighty task for the Milton Keynes-team to down the Silver Arrows and in particular outpace his countryman.
He said: “Lewis, what he’s achieved… Sir Lewis now of course. He’s achieved so much.
“Seven world titles is truly, truly impressive and he’s going to be pumped up and going for that record-breaking eighth title.
“I really hope that our guys can take the fight to him this year.
“We’ve craving for that as I’m sure other fans in F1 are, that there’s a fight for this year’s championship.
“Lewis is in formidable form and he’s at the top of his game and will be extremely hard to beat this year.”
Horner added of Red Bull’s aims: “It’s certainly our target [to beat Mercedes]. We’ve also had a regulation change – a subtle regulation change but it’s still quite impactful.
“So the whole team has worked incredibly hard in difficult conditions obviously over the winter with the lockdown and so on.
“Hopefully we can come out of the box competitively, that’s been our Achilles heel in previous years, we haven’t turned up and been competitive from the get-go.
“Hopefully this year we can be competitive from the first race in Bahrain.”
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Speaking after the unveiling of Red Bull’s 2021 car, the RB16B, Verstappen put the pressure on Mercedes by insisting that the world champions remain the team to beat.
He said: “Mercedes will start as favourite, they almost have to. They still had the most dominant car at the end of last season and also gave up on further development much earlier.
“I am always very realistic and it makes no sense to talk about stuff now. We have to go to Bahrain and look at it there. In the first race we will know if we succeeded or not.
“I don’t like to talk it up at the moment. We know where we want to be and where we want to get to and that’s what we have to realise.”
Mercedes have been tipped to target Verstappen at the end of this season if Hamilton retires, provided he surpasses Michael Schumacher with an eighth title.
The 23-year-old Dutchman is said to have a clause in his contract that allows him to leave Red Bull dependent on unspecified circumstances.
Asked about the possibility of such a switch, Verstappen said: “I don’t know what Lewis is going to do. I just focus on myself and I am very focused on this year and trying to make it a success.
“It is so early in the season that those kinds of things I am not really thinking about at this stage.”