At last year’s Styrian Grand Prix, race winner Lewis Hamilton finished nearly 34 seconds ahead of third-placed Max Verstappen. In 2021’s Styrian Grand Prix the roles were reversed Verstappen put 17 seconds on Hamilton by the race’s end.
Mercedes lacked answers for Red Bull’s pace in both qualifying and the race. They trail by 18 points in the drivers’ and 40 points in the constructors’ standings after eight rounds. Hamilton has not faced a deficit this large since the end of the 2016 season and Mercedes have never been this far behind in the entire post-2013 turbo-hybrid era.
For the first time since 2013, Red Bull have won five races in a season, after winning just 14 in the preceding five seasons. They have leapfrogged Mercedes after losing out in rounds three and four in Portugal and Spain, where Mercedes had edged an advantage.
Where have Red Bull managed to find this performance advantage over the previously all-conquering Mercedes? And can they keep it up?
Straight line gains and a nifty rear wing
Hamilton admitted after the race that the Red Bull was simply the quicker car. And he was open with where he thinks their advantage is greatest: on the straights. That seemed evident last time out in France, when Verstappen stole the lead at the first pit stops and then nabbed the victory after closing easily on the Mistral straight.
Red Bull have always struggled to compete at the top end of the speed charts since 2014, first with Renault power units and then rebuilding in their first couple of years with Honda. Those days are well and truly over.
For the early part of the season, the talk was about the RB16B’s flexible rear wing which, Mercedes claimed, was giving Red Bull a supposedly unfair advantage at the end of the straights.
The FIA introduced new deflection tests for the rear wing after Azerbaijan, but from Paul Ricard, Red Bull have been running a newer specification (it was trialled at Baku, too) low-downforce, ‘skinny’ rear wing. If they can get this to work on a set-up that does not compromise the car too in other ways (tyre degradation, notably) then it seems to be a winner. With their in-season development limited, set-up has become even more important. Mercedes have yet to find something that works to their advantage. For example, in Baku, Bottas and Hamilton ran different specification rear wings.
The rear wings are unlikely to be the entire answer to Red Bull’s straight-line advantage, but it is a contributing factor. Yet, in a season where the margins have generally been tiny, it could be a crucial one. Certainly, Verstappen has said it is the reason for the difference, as much as Honda’s power unit development.
For Mercedes, every action or set-up decision approach risks not moving them closer but further away. They risk chasing their tails but clearly, they must try something. Perhaps that explains their lack of pace at the Styrian Grand Prix, going from arguably the quicker race car in France to a fair way behind.
With the Austrian Grand Prix at the same power-sensitive track on Sunday and the Belgian, Italian and Russian grands prix – all power-hungry tracks with long straights – in the next run of six races after that, Mercedes have to sort this out quickly. It is up to them to find answers to the questions posed by Red Bull, rather than publicly and quizzically questioning their deficit.
The primary reason behind Red Bull’s 2021 resurgence
Rear wings and power units are one thing, but the fundamental reason behind the year-on-year Red Bull resurgence is that Mercedes’ car has been more hampered by the 2021 regulation changes.
Although the 2021 cars were essentially carry-overs from 2020, the size and shape of the car’s floor was cut and several other aerodynamic accoutrements scaled back in order to reduce downforce. Looking at the teams who have dropped back furthest from last year to this the teams who favour a “high-rake” approach – which is the angle of the car, from rear to front – in their cars have gained and the “low-rake” teams (Mercedes and Aston Martin, notably) have lost out. The problems this caused both teams was visible in pre-season testing.
The trend from the start of the 2020 season to the end of it is also relevant. As usual, Red Bull continued to develop their 2020 car until late in the season – they had the quickest package at the final race – but Mercedes were so dominant that they could afford to stop developing the W11 just after the half-way point.
No doubt Red Bull have made huge strides throughout the last year, but Mercedes standing still has made their gains more powerful.
Are Mercedes prioritising 2022 at the expense of 2021?
With huge regulation changes coming for the 2022 season, combined with budget caps and regulation limited development time, this year has given every team a development dilemma. Do they use resource on this year’s car at the expense of next year’s?
After the chequered flag on Sunday, Hamilton pointedly said that he needs upgrades on his W12 if he is to win the championship. Will he get them? It seems any significant updates will not be forthcoming, going by what Team Principal Toto Wolff said. “You see that we have stopped developing for this year, because we believe the next years are so important to get it right,” he told Sky Sports F1.
Is this the correct decision? It is impossible to say now and is might not even be obvious at the end of the season. The prelude to their seven years of dominance came from being the most prepared team for the 2014 regulation changes.
Handily, though they won races in 2012 and 2013, they were not fighting for either title. They are this year but they have not chosen to make it the be all and end all. This economical approach makes sense, even if it risks coming at the expense of an eighth consecutive double championship. Still, the reality is that they face losing their double crown in 2021. It looks more likely than ever.
That is not to say that Red Bull are wrong in their approach, especially after years of patchy success. Take the chances you know you have, do not worry too much about the ones that might come your way.
As ever in F1, there is very rarely a single, simple answer to performance gains or losses. The web of actions and reactions is vast and complex. The fundamentally different ways Red Bull and Mercedes have reacted to the variables in the last two years – regulation changes, in-season development and where to focus resource – have had a cumulative effect which has lined up potentially the greatest season for some years – if Mercedes and Hamilton can keep up with Verstappen and Red Bull, that is.