Apr.9 - Less than one-fifth of the way into Formula 1's longest ever calendar, the realisation that Red Bull and Max Verstappen are heading for yet another title is now setting in.

Mercedes' Toto Wolff said before departing Suzuka that Verstappen will not only certainly win his fourth consecutive drivers' championship in 2024, but that competitors may need to wait until 2026 to get a real chance of taking him on.

"In 2026 there will be a big restart," he is quoted as saying by Austrian newspapers, "and then there will be a realistic chance for all other teams to beat Red Bull.

"But before that there is a whole season and three quarters - and I don't just want to suffer throughout that."

However, Wolff said Mercedes and Ferrari will effectively be left to fight only for second place this year.

"I think Ferrari can get even closer to Red Bull and we can get even closer to Ferrari," said the team boss.

"We're doing everything we can to put on a better show and challenge them, and we will do that. But that (second place) is a much more realistic goal for us than being able to keep up with Max."

Even Carlos Sainz, who is riding a crest of form so far in 2024 as he seeks a new team for next year, admits that Ferrari will struggle to close the gap to Red Bull.

"I think they are definitely going to have an advantage in the first third of the season until we bring one or two upgrades that makes us fight them more consistently," said the Spaniard.

"But by that time maybe it's a bit too late with the advantage that they might have in the championship. I don't see Red Bull making mistakes like they did in Australia very often."

Red Bull's top Austrian advisor Dr Helmut Marko, however, is not ready to be congratulated by his rivals.

"Please stop with that (talk)," he told Osterreich newspaper. "We've only done four races - there are 20 to go. In Melbourne we saw how quickly everything can change.

"Ferrari is strong and reliable. We can't write them off yet."

But what Marko does admit is that - Red Bull's advantage aside - Verstappen is basically impossible to beat on merit for the moment.

When asked about Wolff's early congratulations for a fourth Verstappen title, Marko responded: "That was always my words - we have a good car, but then Max makes the difference on top of that.

"At Suzuka, everything was already clear, but then Max drove that unbelievable fastest lap on worn tyres - not for fun and games, but to get his message across. 'Hello, you others are only here to come second'," said the 80-year-old.

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