MELBOURNE – Max Verstappen proved on Sunday there was genuine pace in the new Honda-powered Red Bull after finishing third in Australia, with the Dutchman "very pleased" at how his car performed.
Red Bull switched to the Japanese manufacturer this year after ending a fractious relationship with Renault, and it appears to be paying off.
The feisty 21-year-old was well adrift of runaway Mercedes winner Valtteri Bottas in Melbourne, but he pushed Lewis Hamilton hard and finished an incredible 35 seconds ahead of the lead Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel.
He has been tipped as a title challenger this year, and his hopes will hang on the performance and reliability of the Honda engine.
"In terms of speed we had throughout the race it was a very good step forward from last year," said Verstappen, who finished fourth in the drivers' standings last year.
"I'm very pleased with that – the engine has been performing well without any issues. We have made good progress and positive things are coming.
"We have been working very well together (with Honda)," he added. "Valtteri was very far ahead still, but it was a good result today and we have to work hard to close the gap."
It was Verstappen's first top three at Albert Park and Honda's first podium finish since 2008.
Such was his power that Verstappen was able to audaciously overtake Vettel midway through the race, before hounding Hamilton without finding a way past.
Ferrari had been the pre-season favourites after performing well in Barcelona testing, but Verstappen showed Red Bull can be a contender this year.
He said it proved people should not read too much into the pre-season testing regime.
"Because testing doesn't really show the true picture, as you can see this weekend," he said.
"We have a good car and managed to stay out of trouble.
"At the start it was very hard to stay close to Seb (Vettel) because my tyres were overheating quickly, so I just went at my own pace.
"Then after the pitstop we had fresher tyres and I managed to get by Seb, which is not easy around this track. In general, I'm just happy to be on the podium."
His new team-mate Pierre Gasly, who replaced Daniel Ricciardo after the Australian moved to Renault, came home 11th after starting from 17th following a poor qualifying session.AFP