until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula 1

Red Bull’s 2021 chance to beat Mercedes is unlike any other

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
6 min read

One of the main reasons people will be sceptical of Mercedes’ current position as Formula 1’s underdog is we’ve seen it overcome a deficit to win the title before, even in the V6 turbo-hybrid era.

But this is unlike any challenge Mercedes has faced before. Consequently, Red Bull’s chance to capitalise on its current championship lead and finally topple Mercedes is unique.

Jun 27 : Styrian Grand Prix review

Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton have gone further into the season with a championship deficit than the eight races F1 has had so far in 2021. Back when they were fighting back against Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel in 2017 and 2018, Hamilton was second-best until the summer break or one race before it.

Sebastian Vettel Ferrari Lewis Hamilton Mercedes F1

Red Bull leads Mercedes by 40 points in the constructors’ championship. Max Verstappen’s margin is only 18 points. With as many as 15 grands prix still to go, there’s ample time for Mercedes and Hamilton to respond.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the opportunity is the same. This is a very different situation to before.

Back in 2017 and 2018, Mercedes was not operating in a cost-cap environment, with F1’s strictest windtunnel and CFD limitations, while preparing to develop for all-new car rules the following year.

And based on Sunday’s Styrian Grand Prix, there’s been a significant shift in the landscape of the 2021 title battle too. So Mercedes is behind on points, behind on performance, and doesn’t have the freedom it’s had in the past to respond.

“It’s much, much different,” says Hamilton. “Back then we did have upgrades, we had the great people we had behind us constantly finding improvements.

Sebastian Vettel Ferrari Lewis Hamilton Mercedes F1

“It’s obviously now more flat and it’s just different. It was a great battle back then, I tried to give the best I could.

“Most of this season has been a really good battle between the two of us with the very, very close performance of the cars but obviously that’s just shifted.”

Red Bull has won the last four races and that means Mercedes is in its longest winless streak in the V6 turbo-hybrid era.

Unlike other recent fights, the two teams involved are taking different approaches to 2021. Mercedes says it’s switched off the taps – all live development work is now on 2022. And when was the last time you saw an upgrade on the W12 anyway? Mercedes apparently does have new parts coming that had been signed off a while ago, and that short-term boost is more than Hamilton and team boss Toto Wolff implied last weekend, but that’s still all there will be.

Red Bull smells blood. It knows the opportunity it has and is going for it.

Mercedes Red Bull F1 Styrian GP

“We do improve our car almost every race, which I think is very important – because we have a good opportunity to have a good season,” says Verstappen.

“I’m confident with the people we have in the team that also the focus for next year is 100%.

“So far I don’t see that compromise – but of course time will tell next year if it’s like that! I fully agree with the approach we have for this season.”

It’s interesting that Mercedes believes that an ongoing development strategy like Red Bull’s is not possible without compromising 2022 while Red Bull thinks it just creates more work – but work that it is possible to achieve within the limitations of the rules.

There’s a finite amount of financial resources that can be deployed, a finite number of windtunnel runs to carry out, and a finite number of CFD items to produce. Being willing to do more work doesn’t matter if there’s no money left to spend or no more aero testing time.

But the differing viewpoints are at the heart of the direction this championship battle seems to be taking.

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes F1 Styrian GP

“I’m not going to question the team’s logic and how they got through with their process,” says Hamilton.

“We would love an upgrade, but I don’t think it’s in the pipeline at the moment. We’re down on a few areas. It’s been close at the beginning of the season and if Red Bull and us had the same performance [now] as we did in those first four races then perhaps it would be a little more exciting.

“But they’ve taken a decent step forward. We will work as hard as we can to manoeuvre around it but in terms of baseline performance this is what we’ve got.”

On the current trend, there’s a real chance that will not be enough by the end of the season to win.

Especially as without ongoing development Mercedes will be limited to extracting what it can from its existing package, and hoping that whatever improvements are coming to the car in the short-term bolster that enough.

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes

There is still an opportunity to make the W12 faster within those confines but it may simply have a lower ceiling than the RB16B, which already looks a little quicker and will probably have a few more parts added to it between now and Abu Dhabi.

Especially as Red Bull is not relenting and, according to Verstappen, can still improve.

“We do have a very good package but I want to see it again every single weekend because every track is different,” Verstappen says.

“It’s still about finding the perfect set-up on the car because it can be quite sensitive in some areas, to make it work and it’s never good enough, so I always want to try and improve every single weekend.

“Even a weekend like this, of course it looks amazing, we won with a big margin, but it’s never good enough.

“We just try and look into details of what we can do better and when we go to other tracks again, I don’t expect it to be like it was [in the Styrian GP].

“We have to just keep being very focused on what we have to do. So far, of course, I’m very happy with how it’s been going. But, like I said, it’s never good enough.”

Max Verstappen Red Bull F1 Styrian GP

There’s a difference between Red Bull not wanting to believe its situation is ‘good enough’ and Mercedes suspecting its car might genuinely not be good enough, though.

In the past it had every opportunity to recover and with Hamilton leading the charge it was able to.

That may happen again. The Styrian GP may prove to be a one-off. Red Bull’s performance edge might not be as apparent outside of the Red Bull Ring. Mercedes might widen the working range of its car and become a broader threat.

Any of those factors could be enough to mean most other races this year are as close as the first seven grands prix of 2021. If they are, it’ll be close enough for Hamilton to make a difference.

That wasn’t the case in Austria last weekend. The question is whether that’s the exception or the new rule. The answer will determine how much of a say Hamilton can really have on the outcome – and he knows it.

Lewis Hamilton Valtteri Bottas Mercedes F1

“I don’t accept anything,” he says. “We’ve still got many races ahead of us and we’ve got to keep pushing. We’re world champions and we can improve if we put our minds to it.

“[But] if we’re not going to develop and improve our car for the rest of the year, this is the result you’re going to see, because they’ve really eked out performance in these last few races.”

Mercedes is weighing up how to tackle a dilemma it’s never faced before. And that gives Red Bull a chance unlike any other in this engine era.

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