Former world champion Alan Jones expects Daniel Ricciardo to emerge as the dark horse in the Formula 1 title fight this season.
The Australian has shown encouraging signs in pre-season testing although it appears Red Bull is currently behind Mercedes and Ferrari in the pecking order heading into this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix curtain raiser.
However, a clear form guide is yet to be revealed with several teams electing not to show their true pace in testing.
Red Bull has been hampered by its Renault power unit in recent seasons but 1980 title winner, Jones, is confident the results shown in testing confirms the French manufacturer has produced a stronger power unit.
This year sees the sport undergo a seismic shift in regulations with the new look cars set to be the fastest ever due to increased downforce levels courtesy of new aerodynamic packages.
Armed with the paddock’s top designer in Adrian Newey and an improved engine, Jones is hopeful Red Bull and Ricciardo will be able to take the fight to the front runners.
“I think Red Bull will go a bit better that what they have shown (in testing),” Jones told Speedcafe.com.
“I think Renault have made better progress than what they are letting on.
“They will will produce a pretty good power plant for Daniel, but whether it is as good as the Mercedes I don’t know.
“When it comes to the chassis I think any rules package is up Red Bull’s street. Adrian Newey is probably still the best designer out there.
“I think Red Bull and Daniel Ricciardo will be the dark horses.”
While confident Red Bull has moved forward with its RB13, Jones believes the battle at the front will be fought between Mercedes and Ferrari.
Ferrari seems to have closed the gap to the reigning world champions during the off-season after posting the fastest time in testing at Barcelona earlier this month.
It is understood the Maranello team has more pace at its disposal having been accused of deliberately sandbagging during the test.
However, Mercedes has shown strength throughout testing and is set to deploy its latest specification engine, which is reportedly 70 horsepower up on last year’s iteration.
“Mercedes have always had this ability to get on and do a lot of testing,” said Jones.
“They did more laps than anybody else and when it comes time to get into it they pull the trigger and blitz everybody.
“I’m not saying they will necessarily do that this year and I’m delighted to see that it appears Ferrari has made some inroads.
“I think Melbourne having the first grand prix is fantastic because it will show who has been sandbagging and who hasn’t.”
Radical rule changes has seen teams that haven’t previously been competitive burst back to the forefront.
The most recent example arrived in 2009 when the new BrawnGP squad, that emerged from the ashes of the struggling Honda operation, went on to dominate the first half of the campaign.
Jones believes a similar scenario is unlikely to happen this year, but believes his former team Williams has shown signs that it will surprise this year.
The FW40, piloted by Felipe Massa and rookie Lance Stroll, enjoyed spells at the top of the times in the final pre-season test.
“I can’t really see any team pulling a big surprise,” he added.
“But I think Williams have made a good step forward, but whether they have got a driver, and all due respect to Massa, that can take it to them (the frontrunners), I’m not sure.”
The first competitive practice session of the new F1 season will take place at Albert Park on Friday at midday local time.