On paper, the result of the season opener in Bahrain may have done little to suggest Mercedes’ Formula 1 domination could be nearing an end in 2021.
But amid the disappointment felt on the Red Bull pit wall in the aftermath of Max Verstappen’s defeat to Lewis Hamilton, there was an underlying optimism that this could be its best chance of a title assault in nine seasons.
Hamilton may have outfoxed Verstappen in the closing stages with his defence at Turn 4, taking advantage of the change in policing to track limits instigated by Red Bull, but he was under no illusions of the deficit Mercedes faces.
“I’m pretty sure we’ve got to do better,” Hamilton said. “We’ve got to be smarter, and how we navigate through our weekends with the fact that we don’t have the fastest car at the moment.
“But that’s all good for me. I don’t mind having to pull out extra in order to make the difference.”
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Bahrain may have seemed like a bullet dodged for Mercedes, but is 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 while the looming 2022 regulations mean it cannot pour the same kind of investment and resources into cutting the gap, it still has a knack for launching comebacks.
It means there is an added significance for Red Bull as it returns to Europe and heads to Imola for this weekend’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix. It will start a string of tracks where qualifying will be of greater importance given the lack of overtaking opportunities, meaning the one-lap advantage enjoyed by the RB16B in Bahrain could be even more decisive.
Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko was upbeat about the team’s chances heading to Imola, but recognised that it could not afford to miss a beat should it wish to beat Mercedes.
PLUS: The themes to watch in F1’s Imola return
“I think with the package we have, a very competitive engine, a chassis that reacts well to everything, that we will be similarly back on par with Mercedes,” Marko told Autosport’s sister publication Formel1.de.
“We know now you can only succeed against Mercedes if you act flawlessly. Everything has to be right. We assume that it will be a similar situation – hopefully with a reversed podium and Max on top.”
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 2nd position, in Parc Ferme
Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images
Verstappen also spoke about the importance of leaning on Red Bull’s operational strength in taking the fight to Mercedes, believing there are no weaknesses for it to resolve in that regard.
“Every team has their weak spots, but in general, we just have to make sure we have a faster car – then everything becomes a lot easier,” Verstappen told Autosport in an exclusive interview.
“Because if you start ahead, and you just have the better car, then it’s a lot easier to score your points without any risk. So that’s what we have to work on.
“I’m pretty sure that if we have that fast car, I think as a team and the way the team is operating, we are very strong. And I don’t see any weakness in that area.”
PLUS: The nightmare timing that now hinders Mercedes
Mercedes is also invigorated by the new challenge against Red Bull, a team it has rarely gone head-to-head with in F1 for a sustained period of time. “There is a feeling within the team that we very much enjoy the new circumstances,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff told Autosport. “And it’s that, on paper, Red Bull is ahead with maybe all of their package.
“It’s theirs to lose, ours to win, because when you have the quickest car, you have got to deliver on that. We have to catch up. We have 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 much as Mercedes is weighing up how much focus to place on catching up for 2021 given the importance of the new regulation cycle, Red Bull also faces a similar dilemma. The defeat in Bahrain did not help make the picture any clearer as to when it could comfortably make the switch.
“I said at the beginning of the season that this is the most difficult season for us since we have been in Formula 1,” said Marko. “On the one hand, it 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. That means we have to do everything to win this world championship without ignoring 2022.
PLUS: Verstappen exclusive: Why lack of car-racing titles won’t hurt Red Bull’s ace
“We have to work in parallel, and this is now a hazard, to work between the two projects in such a way that both will be successful.”
Should Mercedes manage to snare another victory at Imola, Red Bull would be left with another two-week period until the Portimao/Barcelona double-header to try and make sense of the situation. Even if it has the fastest car outright, and even if there are still 22 races to go this year, the timeframes involved mean that every race without a true handle on its performance advantage over Mercedes makes things 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 provides an opportunity for him to try and break his Italian hoodoo. He has never finished an F1 race in Italy any higher than fifth – at Monza in 2018 – and retired in all three events last year at Monza, Mugello and Imola. Verstappen looked to be in the hunt for victory at Imola before Mercedes split its strategies, with a puncture then causing the Red Bull driver to spin out.
Mercedes itself is fearful of how it will fare at Imola. Trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin said he didn’t think the team was “good enough in the high-speed [corners], and there’s plenty of that in Imola and in Portimao,” again pointing to the advantage its chief rival holds.
Red Bull will fancy its chances at Imola, but knows it cannot miss a beat this time around if it wishes to beat Mercedes and send a warning shot for the rest of the season. At least this time around, track limits shouldn’t be such a point of contention…
Additional reporting by Christian Nimmervoll, Jonathan Noble and Alex Kalinauckas.