Monaco (AFP) - Max Verstappen conceded that this weekend's Monaco Grand Prix will see him and Red Bull scrapping to be "best of the rest" after Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes dominated Thursday's free practice sessions.
The Dutch tyro had been widely tipped to challenge their supremacy, but the defending five-time world champion and his Silver Arrows team-mate Valtteri Bottas were seven-tenths of a second clear of third-placed Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari on soft tyres in second practice.
Verstappen had managed to split the two Mercedes men in opening practice, but he could not repeat that speed in the afternoon when a radiator leak hampered his progress.
"I think we are quick, but not that quick," said the Dutchman. "I think Mercedes is too quick, but the big gap between second and third – I think we can fill that up."
He explained: "We had a radiator leak because some debris flew into the air-box and damaged a radiator. We had to replace it, but in general it's all right. We tried a set-up change, but it didn't work."
Verstappen's former Red Bull team-mate Daniel Ricciardo won last year's race from pole position and many observers believed that he was capable of ending Mercedes phenomenal season-opening run of five one-two finishes.
That was until championship leader Hamilton and his nearest rival Bottas delivered a perfect on-track tribute to their team's former non-executive chairman three-time champion Niki Lauda, who died overnight on Monday, with another dominant display on the unforgiving Mediterranean street circuit.
In a team statement, they were cautious, but praised the team for rising to the occasion.
"It's the dream for every driver to come to Monaco and have a car that you can exploit and utilise your abilities with," said Hamilton.
"I'm really proud of the team and naturally our goal is to try and do something really positive this weekend.
"We've made some small tweaks over the two sessions and during the sessions as well, but I've been quite happy with the set-up. Every year we come back here, it gets faster and you really notice it when you're going past the barriers.
"Coming into Turn 12, you carry so much speed into that corner, and then there's just the wall in front of you – and going up the hill to Casino it's the same thing. It's incredibly intense out there and you have to be so focused."
Bottas, who was only 0.081 seconds behind Hamilton, said: "It's been a good day for us on track. In previous years, the car felt sometimes difficult to drive, but today it was very driveable, responsive and enjoyable.
"You need to find the limits on this track and I felt comfortable to push towards the limit, which is a good sign. Now we need to fine-tune the set-up and make sure we keep going in the right direction.
"I think we've started the weekend on the right foot, but we're in Monaco and anything can happen."
For Ferrari, like Mercedes also mourning the passing of Lauda, who won two of his three titles with them, it was another day of cold realization and disappointment as Vettel wound up third and local hero Charles Leclerc was 10th.
To make matters seem worse, for Ferrari, there were widespread calls from rival team chiefs in a post-session news briefing for Ferrari to lose its unique power of veto on changes to the F1 rules.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said that Ferrari’s long-held historic veto was "outdated" and suggested that in future the same rules should apply "for everyone" without any preferences.