27. March 2021
- Lawrence Edmondson
– At ESPN since 2009
– F1 journalist accredited by the FIA since 2011
- Nate Sanders.
F1 Deputy Editor
– He has previously worked in rugby and British Superbikes.
– Studied history at the University of Reading
– Member of ESPNF1 in February 2014
The buzz around Red Bull was real. Prior to the season, it was suggested that Mercedes’ dominance in Formula 1 was in jeopardy after seven years at the top, and this was confirmed by Max Verstappen’s late lap in qualifying for the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Verstappen will join seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton at the start on Sunday.
It’s a face that Formula One fans in 2021 can quickly get used to.
How did Verstappen beat Hamilton?
After two weeks of speculation we finally have confirmation that Max Verstappen has a car that can compete with Mercedes in the season opener.
The combination of the Red Bull driver’s brilliant lap and Mercedes’ unstoppable fight was enough to create a 0.388-second gap between Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton on Sunday.
But just as we were cautious about supporting Red Bull after the test, we must remind our selectors not to give the championship to Verstappen after a qualifying session.
Max Verstappen still seems to be the driver to beat in 2021. Mario Renzi – Formula One with Getty Images
Verstapen’s lead over Hamilton was certainly impressive compared to last year, but the combination of pre-season testing, Friday practice and Saturday qualifying only gives a snapshot of the cars’ potential and, more importantly, only applies to one circuit.
The Bahrain International Road has two main features: It’s sensitive to power, has the best engines on the grid and eats up the rear tyres, which is the advantage of a well-balanced car.
Coincidentally, these seem to be the two areas where Red Bull gained the most ground over the winter, and which could be two weak points for Mercedes this year.
I think the car is just out of place and Bahrain was not very good last year either, team boss Toto Wolff said on Saturday night. It is the configuration of the track and the asphalt that suits Red Bull better than us.
But that’s not an acceptable explanation at all. We just have to do what we did last year, understand the car and the tyres and then we will be competitive again.
Sunday’s race could be a different story, as Verstappen and Hamilton seemed to be very close to heavy fuel during race simulations in Friday’s practice.
Mercedes, however, seemed to have more trouble with the degradation of the rear tyres, losing an average of 0.3 seconds per lap during the first eight laps. That could be the difference that makes Verstappen disappear into the desert if he gets a clean start and leads the field at the end of the first lap.
Why is Mercedes struggling?
Lewis Hamilton faces a real challenge from Red Bull and Max Verstappen in 2021. XPB Images – Pool/Getty Images
After seven consecutive victories for Mercedes, it’s a surprise that Red Bull starts the season as the team to beat.
But if you look at why Mercedes is in trouble, most of the questions are about the aerodynamic rules that changed over the winter.
At first glance, the cars look very similar to their 2020 counterparts, and that’s largely due to cost-cutting measures that have delayed most 2020 designs until 2021.
In theory, this was supposed to benefit Mercedes by freezing the order of the competition, but the cost-cutting measures were combined with aerodynamic modifications to reduce downforce.
The reduction in downforce was necessary to reduce the speed in the corners, which caused dangerous stresses on the tyres, which could cause them to fail.
After three punctures at last year’s British Grand Prix, it was felt that aerodynamic development should be slowed to avoid a major safety issue in 2021.
Mercedes seem to be second in the hierarchy behind Red Bull. Hasan Bratic / wedding ring photos via Getty Images.
But the changes to the aerodynamic regulations, which mainly concerned the bottom of the car, the rear brake ducts and the diffuser, seem to have affected some teams more than others.
Comparing last year’s qualifying time in Bahrain with this year’s, Mercedes lost two seconds, while Red Bull lost just 1.4 seconds.
This can be attributed to Red Bull’s better performance, but the trend also extends to cars that have close ties to the two top teams and therefore follow similar design philosophies.
Since the introduction of the current generation of wide-body cars in 2017, Mercedes and Red Bull have split on aerodynamics, while the rest of the field have filtered their designs along similar lines.
The Red Bull method, which is the most popular, requires the car to be driven with a high rear elevation relative to the front (known as a high braking position), while the Mercedes method, which has won the last seven world championships, requires a relatively low rear elevation (known as a low braking position).
The only other team with the same aerodynamic philosophy as Mercedes is Aston Martin (formerly Racing Point), which also lost more than two seconds in performance on its 2020 times.
Meanwhile, Red Bull’s junior team, Alfa Tauri, which follows the same extreme classification philosophy as Red Bull, lost just 1.4 seconds.
Again, we only have data from one race session to analyse, but for some people in the paddock, the tendency for low-chassis cars to lose more power than high-chassis cars under the new rules is not a coincidence.
I mean, it’s no secret that the changes… Of course, they’re made to bring us back, Hamilton said Saturday night. Last season we had engine changes [referring to the ban on engine positions in qualifying] to do the same thing.
But that’s ok, we like challenges and don’t despise these things. We just work hard to do our best, and we will.
Wolfe added: I don’t know if the answer is that simple [as if high and low speed cars have different collisions], but there is definitely a pattern to what you just described. It seems that the low chassis cars lost more than the high chassis cars, but that’s the situation.
If we said we only follow the rules, we would not be riders and we would not be fighters. We need to get the car to a level where it can keep up with our competitors.
More data – including a race at the Bahrain International Circuit on Sunday night – will confirm or disprove the suspicions, but either way, Mercedes is in a real battle to stay in touch with Red Bull this year.
Look who’s back….
Fernando Alonso is back in F1 after a two-year absence. Dan Istitene – Formula One via Getty Images
It’s like he never left. Almost.
Fernando Alonso returned to the cockpit of a Formula One car for the first time in two years for a race, and he did not disappoint.
He’ll be ninth on the grid on Sunday, in a car that often didn’t look like it could threaten the top 14 in practice.
However, he insists that he continues to build his momentum even after leaving the field.
First of all I need to improve, because today was also the first time I was able to get the maximum out of the car with these exciting tyres, he said.
I will probably need a few races to get used to the pace, even tomorrow it will be the first warm-up lap, the start lights, the first corner – those are simple things for a driver, but in two years it will be like new.
To make a pit stop in less than two seconds, I need to go through all that stuff for the first time, and it will take me a few races to get up to speed, so we’ll see.
Alpine may not yet come across as a headliner, but that didn’t stop Alonso from reaching the height of his potential at the first opportunity.
New team, same old Vettel?
ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP via Getty Images
Sebastian Vettel’s performance was a big shock in qualifying. The four-time world champion withdrew from the grid and qualified 18th out of 20 drivers.
Vettel’s struggles at Ferrari are well documented, but this result is perhaps a little misleading on paper when compared to some of his performances in previous seasons. Vettel was a bit of a victim of circumstance, as a premature yellow flag ruined his final lap of Q1, but the counter-argument is that he shouldn’t have been in such a precarious position in the first place.
When asked in television interviews if he seemed very relaxed given his qualified position, he replied: Would it help if I panicked now? If I was really upset?
Of course I’m frustrated and angry because it’s not our fault we’re failing, but yes, we have to take that and make the best of it to prepare for tomorrow.
Vettel said he has yet to get his new car right.
I’m still learning. I think the quality was good and it was positive. Obviously I’ve only got a lap and a half behind me, but I think we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us and I think we would have liked a better start, but it is what it is.
I hope we have a good race tomorrow. We’ll see what happens today.
Aston Martin teammate Lance Stroll gave a glimpse of the car’s potential by qualifying for Q3. He starts in the 10th on the roster.
Gaslight, Perez Stumbles
At the Bahrain Grand Prix, Pierre Gasly put himself in a strong position to achieve a good result. Peter Fox/Getty Images
Alpha Tauri’s pace was a big question mark as the preseason began – the team from Faenza looked to be in third or seventh place in the preseason analysis.
Yuki Tsunoda put in an impressive lap in Q1, finishing second, but in the next two sessions it was Pierre Gasly who won. There’s been a lot of talk about Tsunoda, but the Japanese showed the kind of inexperience you’d expect from someone making their debut in Formula One by dropping out in Q2, while Gasly showed the true speed of the car.
Anyone who has been following Formula 1 lately would not be surprised to see Gasly put in an impressive performance, given what he has shown over the past year and a half since being relegated to the junior team in mid-2019. His performance is even more impressive compared to Red Bull’s new man Sergio Perez, who was eliminated in Q2.
Perez’s signing was intended to replace the retired Alex Albon this year, but was also a sign that Red Bull no longer believe in Gasly after his unsuccessful stint with the team in 2019. This reasoning has always been difficult to understand given Gasly’s recent form. The Frenchman’s history is well known by now, he won the Italian Grand Prix for the junior team last year, and comparisons with Perez are likely to be typical for the 2021 season.
Gali’s future may not lie with the Red Bull team, but in 2022, if Saturday night’s performance is any indication, there will be plenty of fans interested in his services.
Perez takes over
Sergio Perez and Red Bull boss Christian Horner in the garage during the Bahrain Grand Prix. Mark Thompson/Getty Images
There is no doubt about Perez’s talent, but he made a costly mistake on his first pass in Q2 by crossing the track boundary and taking his first time off the board. As it turned out, this would not have been enough to get into the 3rd. Fifteen minutes to swap, but that would have only put more pressure on Perez to move to the second right.
It’s strange that Perez and Red Bull decided to go back to medium tyres instead of taking the safe option and going for soft tyres. This would mean Perez would start on a less desirable tyre tomorrow, but this could lead to an easy transition into Q3.
The intermediate round was not good enough to move on.
Perez did not apologise for his performance and said his mistake had deprived him of valuable experience to get through to Q3, which he said was important to master a new car quickly.
I think I really need to adapt to the different conditions, Perez said after qualifying. I’m very disappointed to have missed Q3, as it would have made a big difference to understand two sets of tyres as a reference with Max in similar conditions. But alas, I didn’t do the tour I was supposed to. Learning more about the car only helps me.
He added: I just need to be patient with myself and then it should be a matter of time.
Nikita Mazepin seems to have already earned a nickname on social media.
Rookie Haas committed two turnovers in the first quarter, which he also did in Friday’s practice. The second turn came as several riders behind him began recording laps.
On his debut in Formula 1, he started from 20th place, with no penalties for the drivers ahead of him.
Mazepin said the spins were caused by his problems with the brakes.
He said I had a problem with the wire brake. I locked myself in rehearsals, I don’t know why, in the first round, he explained. The pedal was just screwed up. We have to find a solution. Something I didn’t really expect and shouldn’t have happened. I’ve never had a driving test or free practice. I hope that doesn’t happen tomorrow.
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