Jan.25 - Mercedes, the once-dominant Formula 1 team, is at a "crossroads" according to former two-time world champion Mika Hakkinen.

The Finn, now 55, admits that Red Bull and Max Verstappen are heading into the new season as the overwhelming favourites for a fourth consecutive triumph - although he admits he has "hope".

"The history of Formula 1," Hakkinen told Bild newspaper when asked what gives him hope that 2024 might in fact be a much closer contest than last year, when Red Bull won every single grand prix except one.

"How often have there been teams and drivers who were considered certain world champions even before the first lap of testing was completed and then it didn't happen?" the former McLaren-Mercedes driver said.

However, he admits that Verstappen, still only 26 and already a triple world champion, is "well on the way" to matching Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton's all-time record of seven drivers' titles.

"He still needs the right team boss, the right car, pit crew, management - everything has to be right," Hakkinen insisted. "That was the case with Lewis and Michael. That's why they were able to shape an era."

Some think Ferrari will pose the closest challenge to Red Bull this season, but Hakkinen has high hopes for his own former team.

"I expect a lot from McLaren," he said. "After a disastrous start to the season last year, they developed very well and, above all, consistently.

"With Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri, they probably have the strongest driver pairing next to Ferrari."

Hakkinen says Norris and Piastri as a McLaren lineup is "not yet" better than the iconic Hakkinen-David Coulthard pairing, but he said of Woking's current pair: "But both have the potential to become world champions.

"Piastri is putting pressure on Norris and Verstappen will also feel that this year," he said.

As for Mercedes, Hakkinen thinks the Toto Wolff-led team that won seven consecutive drivers' world championships between 2014 and 2020 and still has 39-year-old Lewis Hamilton at the wheel is now "at a crossroads".

"There has not been a question mark over the team for a long time," he said, "but after a decade full of success, the past two seasons have left their mark on the people in charge and the employees.

"And that's good," Hakkinen insists. "They have to be angry now and develop that unconditional will to win again. The team has to develop that old blind understanding again, which is currently missing."

And he thinks there is more pressure on Hamilton's teammate, George Russell, than there is on the seven time world champion himself.

"It is clear that it is still Lewis' team, even though George is entering his third season with Mercedes," said Hakkinen.

That is despite the fact that, in his first season with Mercedes in 2022, Russell actually beat Hamilton.

"That's correct," said Mika, "but last season Hamilton finished third and Russell only eighth. That didn't surprise me.

"On the one hand, Lewis wanted to show everyone that he still has it, while on the other hand George was and continues to be under immense pressure.

"When you're the teammate of a seven-time world champion, all eyes are automatically on you. It doesn't matter if you finished on the podium if your teammate won.

"It's the same with all teams, but different for George as he is racing against a record champion."

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