On paper, the result of the season opener in Bahrain may not have done much to suggest that Mercedes’ dominance in Formula 1 could come to an end in 2021.
But amid the disappointment felt on the Red Bull pit wall following Max Verstappen’s loss to Lewis Hamilton, there was an underlying optimism that this could be his best chance of a title assault in nine seasons.
Hamilton may have outperformed Verstappen in the finals with his turn 4 defense, taking advantage of the change in police to follow the limits set by Red Bull, but he was under no illusions about the deficit facing Mercedes.
“I’m pretty sure we have to do better,” Hamilton said. “We have to be smarter and the way we navigate through our weekends with the fact that we don’t have the fastest car yet.
“But that’s all good for me. I don’t mind having to take more off to make a difference.”
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Bahrain may have seemed like a dodged bullet for Mercedes, but also represents a missed opportunity for Red Bull. Mercedes has managed to overcome deficits in the past – look at 2017 and 2018 against Ferrari – and although looming 2022 regulations prevent it from devoting the same type of investment and resources to closing the gap, it still has the gift of throwing returns.
This means there is additional meaning for Red Bull as it returns to Europe and heads to Imola for the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix this weekend. He will launch a series of tracks where qualifying will be more important given the lack of overtaking possibilities, which means that the one-lap advantage enjoyed by RB16B in Bahrain could be even more decisive.
Red Bull adviser Helmut Marko was optimistic about the team’s chances of making it to Imola, but admitted they couldn’t afford to miss a beat if they wanted to beat Mercedes.
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“I think with the package we have, a very competitive engine, a chassis that responds well to everything, that we will be similarly on par with Mercedes,” Marko told Autosport’s sister publication, Formel1.de.
“We now know that you can only be successful against Mercedes if you act perfectly. Everything must be fine. We assume it will be a similar situation – hopefully with an inverted podium and Max at the top.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 2nd position, at Parc Ferme
Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images
Verstappen also spoke about the importance of relying on Red Bull’s task force to lead the fight against Mercedes, believing that there are no weaknesses to be addressed in this regard.
“Every team has their weak points, but in general we just have to make sure that we have a faster car – then everything becomes a lot easier,” Verstappen told Autosport in an exclusive interview.
“Because if you start early and you just have the best car, then it’s a lot easier to score your points without any risk. So that’s what we need to work on.
“I’m pretty sure if we have this fast car I think as a team and the way the team operates we are very strong. And I don’t see any weakness in this area.
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Mercedes is also reinvigorated by the new challenge against Red Bull, a team with which they have rarely faced in F1 for an extended period. “There is a feeling within the team that we very much appreciate the new circumstances,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff told Autosport. “And it is that, on paper, Red Bull is ahead with maybe its whole package.
“It’s up to them to lose, to us to win, because when you have the fastest car you have to take that into account. We have to catch up. We need to deploy our A-game and find more performance. But strictly speaking, we are second best on the road.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes
Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images
But as much as Mercedes reflects on the importance of focusing on catching up for 2021 given the importance of the new regulatory cycle, Red Bull also faces a similar dilemma. The defeat in Bahrain did not help clarify the situation as to when he could comfortably effect the change.
“I said at the start of the season that it was the most difficult season for us since we have been in Formula 1,” said Marko. “On the one hand, this is due to the cost cap, which hits us of course, and at the same time we see a chance to win the world championship. This means that we must do everything to win this world championship without ignoring 2022.
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“We have to work in parallel, and it is now a risk, to work between the two projects so that both are successful.”
If Mercedes does manage to secure another victory at Imola, Red Bull would end up with another two-week stretch before the Portimao / Barcelona double-header to try to make sense of the situation. Even though it has the fastest car, and even though there are still 22 races to go this year, the delays involved mean that every race without a real mastery of its performance advantage over Mercedes makes things right. more difficult for Red Bull.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
For Verstappen, Imola also gives him the opportunity to try to break his Italian hoodoo. He has never completed an F1 race in Italy above fifth place – at Monza in 2018 – and retired in all three events last year at Monza, Mugello and Imola. Verstappen appeared to be chasing victory at Imola before Mercedes split their strategies, with a puncture that subsequently spun the Red Bull driver.
Mercedes herself is afraid of how she will behave in Imola. Track engineering director Andrew Shovlin said he didn’t think the team was “good enough in high speed. [corners], and there are a lot of them in Imola and Portimao ”, once again underlining the advantage of his main rival.
Red Bull will appreciate his chances at Imola, but know he can’t miss a beat this time around if he wants to beat Mercedes and send a warning shot for the remainder of the season. At least this time around, the track limits shouldn’t be such a point of contention …
Additional reporting by Christian Nimmervoll, Jonathan Noble and Alex Kalinauckas.