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Verstappen says Mercedes have ‘definitely improved’ as he pinpoints need to improve soft-tyre pace ahead of qualifying

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SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JULY 02: Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing prepares to drive

Last weekend saw Red Bull’s Max Verstappen ease to a relatively comfortable victory in the Styrian Grand Prix. But the Dutchman says he already sees signs of a renewed challenge from rivals Mercedes after the first day of running at the same track for the Austrian Grand Prix.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff was moved to admit that the Styrian GP was the “first race in eight years” where the Silver Arrows lacked the outright pace to fight for victory.

READ MORE: Hamilton maintains Red Bull have ‘something extra in their bag’ despite Mercedes one-two in FP2

But on Friday at the Red Bull Ring, with Pirelli having brought tyres a step softer than last week, it was Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas who claimed the top two spots in FP2, as FP1 pacesetter Verstappen was forced to settle for P3.

“They seem quite quick on the soft compound,” said Verstappen. “From our side it wasn’t perfect on that run, but nevertheless I felt good in the car.

“Everything feels quite good - there are no real problems. We just need to make sure we have a bit more pace on the soft because on the medium we looked good and on the long runs we looked decent, and at the end of the day that’s the most important.”

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2021 Austrian GP FP2: Red Bull Ring traffic angers Verstappen

Team mate Sergio Perez could only manage P8 and P11 in the respective sessions, and said the soft tyre “could well be tricky”.

“Was quite a tough day out there, not feeling fully comfortable with the car on the softest tyre,” Perez explained. “I think there’s some analysis to be done there to get the pace back – we should be able to find it overnight. Definitely a lot to see and understand from the tyres and my balance about what’s going on.” So lots of data to absorb, but when all is said and done will Red Bull still hold the advantage over Mercedes?

“I think it will be tight,” added Verstappen. “They’ve definitely improved a bit. We’ll see tomorrow in qualifying but most important is with these softer compounds to make them last in the race, so that’s also going to be a challenge.”

READ MORE: Wolff ‘carefully optimistic’ about Mercedes chances in Austria, as Bottas says car feels better than last week

Of course, if it rains over the weekend, as forecasts are predicting, the drivers will have a lot more to contend with than a potentially difficult-to-manage soft tyre. FP2 saw a smattering of showers briefly pass over the Austrian circuit, giving drivers a glimpse of the conditions they might experience from Saturday onwards.

“I was checking with my hand while driving how much it was raining,” admitted Verstappen. “Luckily, of course, it was good enough to keep driving. I did feel a few moments where you go into a corner and you feel like there’s a bit less grip because of the drizzle. It wasn’t easy but luckily it didn’t rain so we had a good read on the long-run pace.”

Verstappen leads the world championship by 18 points over Hamilton heading into round nine, with Red Bull holding a 40-point advantage over Mercedes in the constructors’ standings.

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