By Abhishek Takle
SEPANG, Malaysia (Reuters) - Max Verstappen hoped Red Bull’s race day performance would allow him to take the fight to champions Mercedes after he qualified third for Sunday’s Malaysian Formula One Grand Prix.
The Dutch driver, who turned 19 on Friday, was the best of the rest after Lewis Hamilton -- on pole position -- and championship-leading Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg locked out the front row.
Verstappen’s fastest lap was more than half a second slower than triple world champion Hamilton’s benchmark time and a little over a tenth down on Rosberg’s error-riddled fastest effort.
But Red Bull, who have Australian Daniel Ricciardo starting alongside Verstappen in fourth place, looked strong during the race simulations carried out in practice.
"Yeah, long run pace looked promising,” said Verstappen, who became Formula One’s youngest-ever winner when he won the Spanish Grand Prix in May on his Red Bull debut after moving from sister team Toro Rosso.
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"I think the whole weekend has been quite positive for me.
"We definitely made some changes after Singapore and it seems to work," added Verstappen, who finished sixth after a poor start dropped him down the field in the previous race through the floodlit streets of the city state.
Both Red Bull drivers have an effectively fresh set of soft compound tyres available to them in the race, having done only a slow lap on them in qualifying.
Verstappen and Ricciardo can perhaps draw inspiration from last year’s race at Sepang when Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel outfoxed their German rivals and dealt them a shock defeat.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff, whose team head into the race on the brink of clinching their third straight constructors’ title, expressed confidence that a repeat will not occur.
Nevertheless, the Austrian is not expecting an easy time of it and is braced for a hard afternoon’s slog in sweltering temperatures.
"I think we are more in the game than in the past," said Wolff.
"Having said that, I’m still skeptical but confident that we can be okay tomorrow and fight for the win. But it’s not going to be one of the easy victories."
(Editing by Alan Baldwin)