Lewis Hamilton claims he is not expecting to be competing for victories at the start of the new Formula 1® season after experiencing difficulties during testing.
Neither Hamilton, who has won the drivers' championship a joint-record seven times, nor new Mercedes team-mate George Russell was among the fastest drivers on the final day of pre-season testing in Bahrain, as Max Verstappen topped the timesheets.
With Red Bull's defending champion faring well just a week before the Bahrain Grand Prix opens the campaign, Hamilton suggested he is not holding out much hope of a strong start, with Mercedes experiencing performance issues with their new W13 car.
"I'm sure everyone can figure it out, we're not the quickest at the moment," Hamilton told a news conference on Saturday.
"Ferrari looks to be the quickest and perhaps Red Bull, and then maybe us or McLaren. I don't know, but we're certainly not at the top.
"Obviously it's a little bit too early to get into [hopes of winning the drivers' championship] or have those kinds of thoughts, but at the moment I don't think we'll be competing for wins.
"But there is potential within our car to get us there. We've just got to learn to extract it and fix some of the problems.
"That's what we are working on and everyone is doing an incredible job back at the factory working as hard as they can, but we have some hurdles to overcome."
Hamilton, who won 2021's season opener in Bahrain, also denied he was deliberately playing down expectations to hide the car's true strength.
"Obviously next week we'll get a much better showing of our pace, but I think people will be surprised," he explained.
"People keep saying that we keep talking ourselves down, but it's a bit different this year. It feels a lot different. It's not as good, I don't think it's going to look as it did last year with the difficult session we had in testing and then switch over [to win] the race.
"I think we have far bigger challenges this time and they are not one-week turnarounds; they'll take a little bit longer. But, from what I told, we have a considerable amount of pace to find."
Team-mate Russell, meanwhile, echoed Hamilton's concerns, claiming that Red Bull and Ferrari were heading into the new campaign in better positions than Mercedes.
"At the moment the performance isn't there," the 24-year-old said.
"We are a step behind our rivals, and we do have a lot of work to do between now and next week to understand because in every condition the Red Bull and the Ferrari seem a step ahead of us.
"I don't think they're exceptional, I think we're probably not as competitive as we would like.
"[But] I believe the guys are going get to the bottom of it. There is potential there, we just need to figure out a way to unlock that performance."