The nearest challengers say they’ll try their best, but doubt they can deny Red Bull’s pacesetter Max Verstappen victory at the Australian Formula One Grand Prix.

Verstappen, the reigning world champion, will start Sunday’s race from pole position at Albert Park.

Mercedes duo George Russell and Lewis Hamilton begin from second and third spot on the grid with Melbourne-born Oscar Piastri starting from 16th.

Russell and Hamilton admit surprise that they’re so close to Verstappen, who is seeking a first win in Melbourne from seven attempts.

But the duo are downplaying their chances of Mercedes hunting down Verstappen, who set an Albert Park lap record in securing top-billing.

Russell was just 0.236 seconds behind Verstappen in Saturday’s qualifying while Hamilton was 0.372 behind the Red Bull ace.

“I do still think Red Bull are a class ahead of everybody else,” Russell said after the qualifying session.

“For sure, Lewis and I got the most out of it … we’re talking that three-tenths (of a second) is a little bit – normally, they (Red Bull) are a second ahead.

“Three-tenths is still a huge amount in the world of F1.

“But we’re not going to give up, we’re going to keep on pushing.

“We have got to go for it, haven’t we? We have got to go for the win.

“Max is going to be extremely fast, there’s no hiding that.”

Russell said the opening salvos would be crucial in determining Sunday’s outcome.

“It’s difficult to overtake around this circuit,” he said,

“So the start, lap one, is going to be vital.

“But the Red Bull has extraordinary top speed so it’s going to be very difficult to fight with Max – but let’s see how we get on.”

Hamilton suggested ganging up on Verstappen, given the opportunity, may be a factor.

“We hope that that we can somehow hold on,” he said.

“He (Verstappen) he might pull away into the distance like he has done in the past but we will give it our best shot.

“You have to expect they (Red Bull) are going to be a third of a second, half a second, quicker than us.

“But maybe in the tow we can just about hold on.

“And maybe the fact that there’s two of us and only one Red Bull may be with strategy we can apply some pressure to them.”