Carlos Sainz expects victory in this evening's Singapore Grand Prix to be fought between the top-five starters on the grid, but the Ferrari charger isn't ruling out a challenge by championship leader Max Verstappen.
Based on qualifying, Ferrari, Mercedes and McLaren all have a strong chance of putting an end to Red Bull's unwavering domination this season which has seen the team win all the races held to date in 2023.
But a proper meltdown in qualifying by the bulls will see Verstappen and teammate Sergio Perez both start their races this evening from outside of the top ten.
On a track where overtaking opportunities are typically scarce, Red Bull's odds of upholding at Marina Bay its clean sweep track record are severely depressed.
But Sainz, who claimed in Singapore his second consecutive pole in F1, refuses to dismiss Verstappen as a candidate for victory despite the Dutchman's P11 starting position and the subdued form of his car on the streets of Singapore.
"I don't think you can ever discount Max and Red Bull" said the Spaniard.
"They might turn up with a race pace that they've had there all season, and still managed somehow to make it through the field.
"But, for sure, around here, they have a much more difficult task. And it's a much better opportunity [for us] than Monza, for example."
Sainz designates George Russell, his teammate Charles Leclerc, McLaren's Lando Norris and Lewis Hamilton as the group that should lead the charge this evening.
But the poleman is particularly wary of Russell given the Briton's extra set of medium tyres at his disposal.
It's worth noting however that every single race at Marina Bay since 2008 has featured at least one Safety Car intervention, and that's a stat that could throw a wrench into any driver's works in the race.
"I think tomorrow the race is going to be between the top five cars that are starting," Sainz continued.
"It is true that George has this extra medium tyre but we could also do a two-stop as the soft didn't look too bad.
"I think it will be a tough race to manage, a tough race to put together but I think if we nail it, we have a great opportunity."
After qualifying, where he missed out on pole by just 0.072s, Russell reiterated his confidence in his car's race pace, and even suggested that Mercedes had the upper hand on Ferrari thanks to his extra set of mediums and to the W14's strong race pace.
"Yeah, I think the fight will be with Ferrari," he said. "We can't discount Lando either, he's got good race pace. Their race pace probably looked a little bit ahead of Ferrari's.
"But it's just going to be around tyre degradation, around the pitstops. In all honesty, we're sitting here now, we don't know exactly how the tyre deg's going to pan out.
"On a circuit that is difficult to overtake, you're going to have to bide your time and maximise it around those pitstops."
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