Formula 1

How the Mercedes/Red Bull rift has become greater than ever

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
5 min read

The timing of Formula 1’s summer break is good or bad depending on how you view the fact that the Mercedes-Red Bull rift is greater than ever.

In terms of the ‘soap opera’ off-track dynamic it has leant a breathless 2021 season, pausing the fight for three weeks is no good.

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It halts the momentum that had been building all year and reached an all-time high during the ill-tempered and controversial British and Hungarian Grands Prix.

But if you’re not in it for the politics, the petty squabbling and the ‘he said-she said’, or you think the title fight is better off with a measure of calm restored, then this is a welcome break. A three-week cooling off period to help get things under control.

At its best (worst?) Mercedes vs Red Bull has become the defining divide of this title battle rather than the Lewis Hamilton vs Max Verstappen narrative that started the season.

Lewis Hamilton Max Verstappen

Hard-but-fair wheel-to-wheel racing has given way to – according to Red Bull technical chief Adrian Newey – an unprecedented level of “politicking and behind-the-scenes lobbying”.

Clearly that is a dig at Mercedes and the scrutiny that Red Bull’s flexing rear wing was put under, the questions raised about Honda’s engine performance and the technical directive that briefly looked like it would eliminate a key Red Bull advantage in the pitstops.

Newey says it’s natural for rivals to focus on one another, even going so far as to say he doesn’t like the war analogy but feels it’s applicable in this context. It’s also happening in both directions.

Mercedes and Red Bull are fierce adversaries but the fight has become ill-tempered at times and while the intensity is something to savour for the most part there is a risk it could go too far. It has already nudged that line, if not crossed it entirely, this season.

Regardless of what Red Bull says there is a clear implication that people believe Hamilton took Verstappen out on purpose at Silverstone.

Mercedes could have de-escalated the situation immediately in Hungary but didn’t, accusing Red Bull of a “concerted” effort to tarnish Hamilton’s reputation.

Neither side has really done much to dampen the flames. If anything they have been fuelled.

Christian Horner

After the Silverstone crash there were emotional comments from the Red Bull camp that invited a Hamilton pile-on. That’s not a reference to racist abuse. But the stinging criticism of a “dangerous” and “amateur” piece of driving, and the odd focus on the “disrespectful” celebrations post-race, gave others licence to shred Hamilton to pieces.

But in Hungary, Mercedes didn’t exactly rise above it. Hamilton even revisited the topic in a roundabout way during the weekend when he was subjected to booing – blaming Red Bull and its “unacceptable” comments for sparking that.

Max Verstappen Lewis Hamilton

During this back and forth it’s largely irrelevant who started it and who you consider to be in the right. After a point it becomes repetitive and someone needs to take the high ground. But the events of the Hungarian GP stopped that from happening.

When Valtteri Bottas skittled three cars including both Red Bulls at Turn 1, the animosity was clear again post-race, it just manifested itself in another way. There was no accusation of intent but Red Bull wasn’t prepared to just shrug it off.

Counterparts Christian Horner and Toto Wolff had a frosty exchange when Wolff appeared apologetic. Asked by Sky Sports if he accepts Wolff’s apology, Horner diverted: “Is he going to pay the bill?”

World champion turned pundit Nico Rosberg allegedly claimed Horner rejected an apology but unless there was another moment between the two, something has got lost in translation there.

Regardless, the discomfort in this rivalry became palpable. Wolff even admitted that it was perhaps “karma” that his team didn’t go on to win the race given how what happened at Turn 1.

There’s a big back story to this saga that is explored in-depth by Mark Hughes here. But the bottom line is the needle between the two teams is now razor-sharp.

Is it boiling down to a sheer dislike, with Mercedes and Red Bull simply sharing a mutual disdain of the other? At times it has started to go that way.

Red Bull insists it never got personal when Hamilton was being criticised after the Silverstone clash but it does feel increasingly tribal on both sides as the intensity of the title battle escalates, the hints and accusations pile up, and the paranoia of such a fight creeps in.

What are the chances of a Mercedes taking out a Red Bull in consecutive races for the rest of the year? Probably quite low. But any kind of on-track altercation? That seems more likely.

Perhaps this will be reflected on as the nadir of the Mercedes/Red Bull fight. If the rift widens more than this it will be problematic.

The last thing this season needs is to end with a sour taste. It would be a bitter and unsatisfactory conclusion to such an epic to-and-fro, especially one involving two remarkable drivers, if come Abu Dhabi the losing side cannot accept defeat to the other.

Perhaps some time to reflect and an opportunity to reset at the Belgian Grand Prix will prevent that. But presently it is difficult to see how either team could lose without feeling aggrieved in some way.

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