For the first time since the 2018 British grand prix, we have a championship leader who is not a Mercedes. This year looks like we could have a real title race between two incredibly fast drivers. Max Verstappen has taken another jump this year, and has firmly positioned himself for a run at the title in 2021. As of right now he leads the world drivers championship thanks to 5 top 2 finishes out of 5 this season, and Lewis Hamilton struggling in Monaco means Verstappen has taken the lead of the world drivers championship for the first time in his young career. Despite his rear tyre failure at the end of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix that cost Verstappen the win, he maintains his lead at the top of the World Drivers championship, thanks to a rare mistake from Lewis Hamilton. There is no doubt this year is different, with Red Bull leading both championships for the first time since the end of the 2013 season. In this post, we will talk about Mercedes vs Red Bull.
The Season so far
The big jump from Red Bull was seen immediately at the start of this season, with Max Verstappen finishing top of the time charts on day 1 and day 3 of testing this year. Red Bull came out strong, putting in a lot more laps than Mercedes during testing. Since then, both teams have traded blows throughout an exciting start to the season. Verstappen came so close to a win in Bahrain, but Lewis made us all believe we could be about to see a repeat of the previous 4 years, with Hamilton dominating without real competition. However, Lewis showed cracks in the second race, with his mistakes allowing Verstappen to finish comfortably first, as Lewis fought through the field to regain second. Portugal and Spain were not great races for Verstappen, with his worst point being Hamilton closing a 20 second gap to pass Verstappen in the Spanish grand prix. Monaco really felt like a turning point. Mercedes had an awful weekend, they looked off the pace throughout practice, however Bottas managed to out qualify Hamilton and with Charles Leclerc’s retirement before the start of the race, Bottas had a great opportunity for serious points. However an unmoveable wheel nut would end Bottas’ race, with his team mate Hamilton stuck in seventh the whole race. Max would take a commanding win and thanks to a big mistake from Lewis on the restart, Max’s tire failure didn’t cost him the lead in the championship. It had been pretty close between the teams second drivers as well, however Sergio Perez picking up 37 points over the last two races, compared to the 0 from Bottas means that Red Bull now have a commanding lead of 26 points in the Constructors championship, heading into the French grand prix.
Why do we have such a close title race this year?
Red Bull finally look like they have a car which can fight Mercedes. Since his debut with the team in 2016, Max Verstappen has shown flashes of brilliance, however Red Bull have not really been able to give him the car to challenge for the drivers world championship. This being Honda’s last year in the sport since its revival with McLaren back in 2015, there is no doubt that the Japanese manufacturer will want to go out on a high, before Red Bull takes over their engine program until at least 2025. Honda seems to have really gone all in this year on its engine, making it look like the most powerful on the grid, with the great performances by Red Bull also being backed up by a strong start to the season from Alpha Tauri, with Gasly benefitting from Hamilton’s mistake and Verstappen’s tyre failure to take an impressive podium in Baku. The main reason you would have to say that Mercedes have dominated the hybrid era is there engine and how they develop the car perfectly around it. Red Bull struggled for years with the Renault engine, and their lack of input in its design, leading to the divorce of the two in 2018, having previously been with the French manufacturer since 2007. The main reason the red bull engine has seen these improvements is that developments planned for 2022 were brought forward to 2021. This has clearly given them a pace advantage, one they hadn’t had in previous years. In the divorce with Renault, Red Bull team principle Christian Horner stated that what had let them down in the hybrid era was the engine, and that the switch to Honda would bring much more success. While it didn’t look like a massive improvement in 2019 and 2020, it appears the all in mentality of Honda in 2021 has brought big results and is putting Red Bull in serious contention for both the drivers and constructors world championship.
Mercedes take a step back
Mercedes really are not used to being on the back foot in a championship like this. They have dominated the last seven seasons, spearheaded by Lewis Hamilton. This year seems different. Mercedes have had poor pre-season testing before, most notably in 2018, however they have not previously seen a car and driver outperform them the way Max Verstappen and Red Bull have this season. Lewis Hamilton came into the season saying that the car “ is far from optimised” just two weeks before the season. Baku was the first time since Austria 2018 where Mercedes came out of the weekend with no points. One of the most worrying things Mercedes have also seen is how poor Valtteri Bottas has been so far this season, despite coming into the year saying he wanted to emulate Nico Rosberg and mount a serious title battle. His crash with one race teammate George Russell in Imola was while the Williams driver was going to overtake Bottas for 9th position. The Finn has still managed to get three podiums so far this season, but he still remains 6th in the World Drivers championship, already 54 points behind his teammate. Bottas was already under pressure heading into this year, considering the continued excellent performances of Mercedes academy driver George Russell means Valtteri may see his time with the silver arrows come to an end at the end of this season. His rival, Red Bull second driver Sergio Perez, has outperformed him this year, with the Mexican currently having a 22 point advantage over Bottas. It’s not all doom and gloom for Mercedes, Hamilton remains 4 points behind Verstappen for the lead of the drivers championship and they were able to find a lot of pace between Friday practice and qualifying during the Azerbaijan weekend. The Silver Arrows may not have necessarily taken a step back this year, but they’re relying on the incredible quality of Lewis Hamilton more than ever this year.
Red Bull’s Flexi wing advantage
Throughout the years of Mercedes dominance, Red Bull have continuously protested different Mercedes innovations. The big one in 2020 was Mercedes use of the DAS system to provide a much more efficient heat up of the tires. There is no doubt that these protests were influenced by the fact that Mercedes were dominating at the time, and Red Bull could not seem to match their pace. The politics of F1 means who ever is on top, the chasing pack will look to slow them down any way they can. This year the script has flipped, with Mercedes launching a protest into the Red Bull RB16B. Red Bull’s flexible rear wing has been the target of Mercedes protests, with Lewis Hamilton claiming that it would give the team 6 tenths of pace in the narrow streets of Baku. The protests have been heard by the FIA, with new tests on flexibility being introduced prior to the French grand prix. This protest may have been caused by the pace advantage that Red Bull appear to have this year, so it will be interesting to see whether Red Bull still have a pace advantage at the races after the tests. Red Bull have pointed the finger back at Mercedes, claiming that they have footage of the Silver arrows front wing flexing in Imola.
It looks like this season we could have a real title race, with Max Verstappen seemingly having the car to compete with Lewis Hamilton. We’ve seen in the past that Red Bull have been the better team at developing their car throughout the season, which could give them the advantage in the final races. As fans, we have had an exciting start to the season, and I think we can all hope for this close fight to continue.