Red Bull team principal Christian Horner admits Formula 1 rival Ferrari is currently the team to beat in 2019 and has become the “gold standard” in terms of engine performance.

Ferrari was mysteriously off the pace at the Melbourne season-opener but dominated in Bahrain before its capitulation in the race handed an unlikely victory to Mercedes.

The Italian team had led the way in terms of straight-line speed in Bahrain and that advantage appeared to translate to China, with Sebastian Vettel comfortably quickest in opening practice before Mercedes responded in FP2.

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Both Mercedes drivers were left concerned by Ferrari’s advantage on the straights, which according to team GPS data could be worth nearly four-tenths of a second alone on the long back straight in sector three.

“They’ve done a great job,” Horner told Sky Sports following the conclusion of second practice.

“They’re ballistically fast on the straights and they’re obviously carrying a lot of wing as well so it’s down to us to try and catch them.

“But they are certainly the gold standard at the moment. It’s impressive even compared to a Mercedes.”

Red Bull had hoped a switch to Honda engines would allow it to challenge rivals Ferrari and Mercedes this season. While the team still appears to hold a deficit to F1’s leading engine manufacturers, it has been left encouraged by Honda’s progress.

“We’ve make a step,” Horner explained. “I don’t know whether it’s as big as the other teams. But it’s certainly coming.

“Honda worked on it very hard over the winter and definitely we have more performance in qualifying than we do in the race. That’s good to see. As different engines are introduced this year, that will only increase.”

Max Verstappen ended up just 0.221s off the pace of Valtteri Bottas and Sebastian Vettel in second practice, despite making a mistake at the final corner, leaving Red Bull optimistic heading into qualifying.

“With that wobble from Max in the last corner, without that he would’ve been capable of a time similar to what Bottas and Vettel did,” Horner said.

“I’m pretty confident that we’ve got a reasonable race car here this weekend.”

Verstappen, who played down concerns over a late gearbox issue, believes Red Bull has made progress with the understanding of the issues that hampered the team’s performance in Bahrain.

“It’s always a question mark, but I think we’re all quite confident that if we would solve that, it would look already a lot better, and I think that showed again today - it’s not too bad,” he said.

“The tyres are pretty weak. They degrade quite a lot, the softer compounds. It’s not really nice. You’re really just managing tyres, so that’s just how it is.”

Pierre Gasly once again struggled to match the pace of his teammate as he spent the first session carrying out development work before setting the 10th best time in FP2.

Gasly added: “It was quite a lot of testing during the day, trying to push the development as much as we can.

“I was testing a lot of parts in both sessions, and now we need to analyse what’s best and the best parts for tomorrow.”

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