Mercedes Formula 1 chief Toto Wolff says Red Bull-Honda must be taken seriously as a title contender in 2019 following an impressive first outing for the partnership in Australia last weekend.

After becoming Red Bull’s power unit partner for the new season, Honda recorded its first F1 podium finish in over a decade as Max Verstappen finished third in Melbourne.

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Verstappen qualified fourth and managed to pass Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel with ease early in the second stint, before piling pressure Mercedes driver Hamilton in P2 late on, eventually finishing less than two seconds behind.

Speaking after the race, Mercedes team boss Wolff said the new Red Bull-Honda partnership would have to be taken seriously in the title race this year.

“[They were] very strong, you saw how they have eaten up Sebastian into Turn 3. The power was enormous,” Wolff said.

“Seeing them come back strong makes me happy as they are a good group of people. They are decent men.

“The combination with Red Bull will become a threat. The level of performance, you must certainly have them in the calculation for the championship.”

Verstappen’s third-place finish was a landmark for Honda after a difficult initial return to F1 with McLaren in 2015 that was blighted by recurring performance and reliability issues.

Honda cut ties with McLaren at the end of 2017 to link up with Red Bull’s B-team, Toro Rosso, laying the foundations for its expanded partnership for 2019.

Additional reporting by Michael Lamonato.

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