Red Bull team boss Christian Horner says Honda has “made good progress” over the winter to leave them optimistic its engine will close the performance gap to Mercedes and Ferrari.

The Milton Keynes-based outfit has joined forces with the Japanese engine supplier this season after its 11-year relationship with ex-engine partners Renault ended in a messy divorce.

Renault’s engine had been known to be significantly down on power in relation to Mercedes and Ferrari’s power units, with figures suggesting there was a 20-27 horsepower deficit in race trim and over 50 bhp in qualifying.

“Progress is our target,” Horner said, as quoted by BBC Sport. “The objective is to be more consistent across all circuits and hopefully with more horsepower than last year, that will only help to reduce that gap.

“It will all depend on what the others have done.”

Last year’s regulations saw drivers permitted to using just three engines over an entire season, with penalties handed out to anyone who exceeded the limit.

Horner admits it will be a struggle to avoid grid drops at some point in the year but believes it could aid Honda’s progress further.

“It’s a huge challenge to do the season on three engines,” he said. “We’d rather take a penalty if it means consistent progress. We’re extremely hopeful the performance will be a step from where we’ve been the last few years.”

Lead driver Max Verstappen is tipped by Horner to rattle his rivals this year after his strong end to 2018, recording five podiums in the final five races.

Following his crash-strewn start to last season, Horner reckons Verstappen has grown in maturity that will enable him to deal with any challenges he may face.

“Max has evolved so much. He is more worldly, more experienced,” said Horner. “He is very quick and very determined and has his own character. He is now in a very rounded position. He has absolute determination and zero fear.”