SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Max Verstappen does not expect to repeat his wet-weather heroics from Brazil last year, when he starts what is predicted to be a rain-hit Chinese Formula One Grand Prix from near the back of the grid on Sunday.
The Red Bull teenager was 19th-fastest of 20 cars in qualifying at the Shanghai circuit, after nursing engine problems that saw him knocked out in the early part of the session.
He will, however, start at least two places higher after drivers in front of him were handed grid penalties.
Conditions in the race are expected to be treacherous.
But the Dutchman, whose drive at a drenched Interlagos circuit last November earned him a reputation as one of the best wet-weather specialists on the grid, was quick to play down expectations of a similarly stirring performance.
“Last year in Brazil I think we had one of the best cars in terms of downforce,” said the 19-year-old.
“In the rain you could still see we were down on power on the straights, but the car was working well.”
“For sure tomorrow I will go to the front. But I don’t think we are in a position to challenge Ferrari and Mercedes even in the wet.”
Verstappen put on a thrilling display of skill and bravery in Brazil last year, scything through the field from 16th to third in just 15 laps.
The drive drew comparisons with Formula One greats Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher, but Red Bull’s struggles this year may push a podium finish out of reach in China.
Red Bull, who won four consecutive constructor and driver titles from 2010 to 2013, were expected to emerge as the closest challengers to reigning champions Mercedes this season.
A shake-up of the rules -- with cars sporting fatter tyres and revised aerodynamics -- was expected to play to the team’s strengths.
Instead Ferrari are taking the fight to Mercedes, who have won both titles for the past three years.
Illustrating the point, Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo enjoyed a trouble-free qualifying but the Australian was still fifth, nearly a second-and-a-half off Lewis Hamilton’s pole-position benchmark for Mercedes.
"It will take some time,” said Verstappen when asked when Red Bull might be competitive.
“We have to be realistic... we just have to wait and work hard.”
Editing by Toby Davis