Max Verstappen believes Red Bull can find itself in a position to challenge Ferrari at the Formula 1 Japanese Grand Prix, though he admits Mercedes “seem too far ahead”.

While Mercedes dominated proceedings throughout Friday practice at Suzuka, Red Bull mixed it up with Ferrari as Verstappen ended the day splitting the Scuderia pair with the fourth-fastest time, just less than two tenths off Sebastian Vettel.

Although he conceded Red Bull still has work to do heading into qualifying, the team’s performance relative to Ferrari left the Dutchman feeling upbeat regarding its qualifying and race-day chances.

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“I think we can get close to Ferrari and challenge during the race but Mercedes seem too far ahead at the moment,” Verstappen said.

“We have some work to do ahead of tomorrow as I wasn’t totally satisfied with the feeling in the car today. Both short and long runs didn’t feel ideal, it may look closer on paper but I know we can improve.”

Verstappen ran a slimmer rear wing configuration compared to teammate Daniel Ricciardo as Red Bull experimented with set-up in its bid to reduce the time lost on the straights due to Renault’s well-documented power deficit compared to Mercedes and Ferrari.

“I was running a different rear wing to Daniel which meant less downforce,” he explained. “If we can find a compromise between straight line speed and rear grip then it will put us in a stronger position for the rest of the weekend.

“Here in Suzuka you need to be confident in the grip in order to attack the corners. It’s only Friday so we have time to make the changes and find a good balance ahead of qualifying.”

Ricciardo, who was third-quickest behind the Mercedes duo in FP1, finished up over two tenths adrift of his teammate as he ended the afternoon session in sixth – though the Australian was encouraged by some “promising signs” from Red Bull on Friday.

“It was a pretty solid day and there are some promising signs,” Ricciardo added. “On the low fuel runs we can be better but I don’t think we’re looking too bad.

“My sector one was slow as I had traffic on my fast lap and we can be better there for sure. On the straight we still lose a bit to the front runners, even if we ran the same downforce, they have a bit more power so coming up to Turn 1 we already lose a bit.

“We gain a little bit back in the corners but I think tomorrow if it’s dry you will see a better sector one from us. The long runs seemed more consistent and I was happier with that.”

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