Red Bull look to banish Australian Grand Prix hex
MELBOURNE, March 29 (Reuters) - Red Bull stand poised to shrug off their Australian Grand Prix hoodoo on Sunday and continue their domination of the Formula One world championship as rivals struggle for pace.
Red Bull have not won at Albert Park since former driver Sebastian Vettel claimed the 2011 race but there may be no stopping the constructors champions this year at the lakeside circuit.
With Max Verstappen leading a Red Bull 1-2 in Bahrain and team mate Sergio Perez flipping the order in Jeddah, Red Bull have been in a class of their own this season, with the RB19 car dazzling with its speed and showing ample reliability.
"It's always nice to ... experience Melbourne a little, although from a racing point of view, it is not one that has been too kind to us over the years," said double defending champion Verstappen, who was forced to retire during last year's race due to a fuel problem.
"The track is great with some high-speed corners, and one I enjoy driving so hopefully we can have a good race this weekend.
"We just need it to be straightforward and consistent."
Verstappen leads the championship by a point from Perez, who won in Saudi Arabia by holding off the Dutchman as he roared back to second from 15th on the grid.
Formula One will hope Perez can keep the pressure on Verstappen, with the other teams seemingly well behind the development curve.
An unprecedented fourth DRS Zone at Albert Park this year -- between turns eight and nine on the 14-corner lay-out -- could play further into Red Bull's hands.
Once-dominant Mercedes, whose drivers George Russell and seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton finished fourth and fifth respectively at Jeddah, are "storming full steam ahead" to bridge the gap after realising they got their car concept wrong.
"The signs we are seeing back at the factory are promising," said team boss Toto Wolff.
"We are not where we want to be - but that won't stop us from racing hard and giving it everything we've got."
They may need improvement quickly if they hope to retain Hamilton, whose contract expires at the end of the season.
Speculation about the 38-year-old Briton's next move is already rife, with Ferrari seen as the likely destination.
Ferrari, however, have their own problems, with drivers Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc lamenting a lack of pace after finishing sixth and seventh respectively in Jeddah.
Neither they or Mercedes have a podium this season, upstaged by the much-improved Aston Martin and their 41-year-old twice world championship-winning driver Fernando Alonso.
Aston Martin have brushed off jibes from Red Bull that the AM23 is a copy of its car, despite sporting a Mercedes engine and gearbox.
That has hardly fazed them.
"We have a different concept to those two cars (Red Bull and Mercedes) although it's true that visually all the cars look a little bit similar," Alonso told Spanish media.
Home fans will cheer a new Australian driver over the weekend, with the much-hyped rookie Oscar Piastri having replaced Daniel Ricciardo in the papaya colours of McLaren.
Ricciardo, now reserve driver at Red Bull, never managed a podium at Albert Park, and Melbourne-born Piastri's first home race is unlikely to be triumphant, with struggling McLaren yet to score a point.
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