Max Verstappen overtook nine cars on the first lap of the Chinese Grand Prix. Picture: Aly Song / Reuters

Shanghai, China - On-board footage of Max Verstappen's stunning opening lap at the Chinese Grand Prix has gone viral over the past days but the young Red Bull driver is well aware that he and his team remain far from the top early in the Formula One season.

Verstappen sensationally passed nine cars in that first lap in Shanghai on Sunday as he roared from 16th to seventh en route to finishing on the podium in third.

Team-mate Daniel Ricciardo followed in fourth which sounded like a solid result but was swiftly put into perspective by Verstappen, given the dominance of Mercedes race winner Lewis Hamilton and second-place finisher Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari.

"I think at the moment we're a bit in a lonely competition because in front of us they are too quick and behind us they are too slow," Verstappen said. "We are working really hard and trying to close the gap but it's not that easy. But we'll keep pushing hard."

Red Bull ruled the sport from 2010 to 2013 with four straight Drivers' world titles from Vettel and four Constructors' crowns from the team backed by the Austrian energy drinks giant Red Bull.

But Mercedes then took control after rule changes in 2014, and appear to have kept the momentum despite another set of new regulations this time around, with Ferrari however also strong and Vettel winning the season-opener in Australia.

"On true pace, both Ferrari and Mercedes should be ahead with both of their drivers so we still need to work very hard to catch up," Verstappen said.

Wider and faster

Things are unlikely to change on Sunday at the Bahrain GP, where Vettel won for Red Bull in 2012 and 2013 but it has not been on the podium since.

Red Bull had hoped to rein in Mercedes through the changes, just as its dominance was broken three years ago - with team adviser Helmut Marko on the forefront of those in favour of the new rules which made the cars wider and faster.

Marko suggested at the time of the talks that only Mercedes motorsport chief Toto Wolff "has this paranoia that Mercedes must give up its dominance if little things are changed at the engine and chassis."

Fellow Austrian Wolff had argued against the new rules by saying "the field will become closer the longer you stick to" the established rules as all teams were improving.

Closing the gap 

But now Hamilton and Vettel are joint leaders in the Drivers' list with 43 points each ahead of Verstappen who has 25. Mercedes tops the Constructors' standings with 66 points, one ahead of Ferrari while third-placed Red Bull trails with 37.

Red Bull must now hope that updates to the RB13 car and the work of technical wizard Adrian Newey will help it close the gap rather quickly.

After all, Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz made it clear on the weekend the team wants to "fight for the world title again this season and next year".

Naming Verstappen "a real breath of fresh air for everyone," Hamilton at least would welcome such a scenario in what he expects to be a thrilling season.

"I hope that Red Bull can improve through the season because a third element in the fight would be even more exciting," he said.

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