Twenty-four hours after the first race of the 2021 Formula One season, there is much to talk about. For those who want a little more analysis on how the race went, click here. And if you still don’t know why Max Verstappen’s overtaking manoeuvre risked the wrath of the stewards and Lewis Hamilton abused the crash barrier, this is the article you need to read.
But for now, let’s focus on the battle between Mercedes and Red Bull.
Who has the fastest car? Why? And it has to go on like this?
Red Bull is faster than Mercedes
Max Verstappen led the opening stages of the Bahrain Grand Prix. Dan Istitenet – Formula One via Getty Images
In Bahrain, the combination of Max Verstappen and the Red Bull RB16B was faster than Lewis Hamilton and the Mercedes W12.
The proof came during qualifying, when Verstappen set a lap 0.388 seconds faster than Hamilton.
Both drivers drove clean laps and both cars were further tuned during three days of testing and three hours of practice. There were no heavy oil sandbags, no differences in tire composition, no excuses.
Red Bull has the most advantage in the fast corners, although the RB16B has an advantage over Mercedes in almost every corner.
Verstappen also benefited from the Honda power unit’s ability to provide more electrical energy at key points in the lap, where Mercedes’ hybrid system immediately ran out of power.
We have no strong points against them, that’s what I would say, Mercedes chief engineer Andrei Shovlin said after the dust settled.
There were a lot of years where we could rely on straights, high speed corners, or chain corners, but if you look at this, we didn’t take any time away from them anywhere.
There were a few corners where they really gave us trouble in qualifying – the high speed corners and also corners 9 and 10, they were really strong there.
That’s what it comes down to. In qualifying they picked up the pace, and in better form they are just faster than the others, so we need a faster, easier to drive car.
Lewis Hamilton held off Max Verstappen in the final laps. Clive Mason – Formula One via Getty Images
In Sunday’s race, however, it was Hamilton, not Verstappen, who came out on top.
It’s not uncommon for the benefit of qualifying to be minimized in race conditions, as the emphasis is on tire management rather than straight-line racing.
A car that is 0.4 seconds per lap faster quickly becomes a blunt instrument when it loses 0.1 seconds per lap of power to the competition due to tire failure.
The situation between Verstappen and Hamilton was not that extreme, and perhaps Red Bull would have been more competitive with a different tyre strategy, but Verstappen’s advantage in the race was much smaller than in qualifying.
Mercedes won the race by using an aggressive tyre strategy earlier than expected, forcing Verstappen into the track to win the race.
Instead, Red Bull’s strategy seemed flat and they reacted reactively rather than proactively to their rivals’ pit wall.
But it was a conscious decision by a team that knew it had a performance advantage. An approach that would have paid off if Verstappen had driven Hamilton off the track without flying off the track.
If you’re looking for an explanation of race strategy: Yes, we could have stopped Max earlier at the second stop, but then we caught Lewis on the old tyres [with less advantage in overtaking], Red Bull chief engineer Paul Monaghan said. He could also have stopped later and had a bigger advantage in terms of tires.
So our troops moved evenly and we had a tempo advantage.
We passed Hamilton once and couldn’t get close. I don’t know if it slipped our mind, it’s more that we played our cards differently and at the end, when we went two meters over the edge [in turn 4], we had to take the place back and that was it.
The car was able to be faster [than the Mercedes] during the race. Furthermore, Hamilton’s ability to stay close to Verstappen in the early stages of the race was aided by a problem with the RB16B’s differential, which caused one rear tyre to spin more than the other.
Florent Goodin/DPPI/Icon Sportswire
Red Bull didn’t use the problem as an excuse after the race, but Hamilton’s proximity to Verstappen for the first pit stop was a cornerstone of Mercedes’ aggressive strategy.
Max had some problems with the difference at the start of the race, Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said after the race. You could tell he wasn’t happy and it seemed to affect his first sector on the Mercedes.
Therefore, we need to better understand and examine this issue. I certainly wasn’t as lucky as him in that part of the track in the first sector, and you could see that was our weakest part of the track today.
Despite this victory, Mercedes has no illusions. The Bahrain Grand Prix was also a harbinger of the season to come.
I think Red Bull will probably win the race today, Shovlin said on Sunday night. We have just spent almost an hour talking to the drivers about how we can improve the car.
But it’s one of the best in a while, I think.
How Red Bull jumped on the Mercedes?
Max Verstappen still seems to be the driver to beat in 2021. Mario Renzi – Formula One with Getty Images
Although Red Bull won the final race of the championship at the end of last season, Mercedes was expected to retain its performance advantage in 2021.
However, changes to aerodynamic rules over the winter seem to have had more of an impact on Mercedes’ performance than Red Bull’s, increasing the likelihood of a battle between the two teams for the championship.
While this is a desirable outcome for F1, it is not why the rules were changed.
The changes, which include cutting away the triangular section of the floor for the rear tires, shortening the length of some diffuser panels and reducing the size or aerodynamic appendages on the rear brake ducts, were introduced to make the Pirelli tires lighter.
This decision was made after three punctures at the British Grand Prix, due to the considerable force exerted on the tyre structure in high-speed cornering.
The FIA fears that sustained tire pressure during the winter will lead to more tire failures in 2021 and a potential safety issue.
The Steering Committee could unilaterally change the rules from year to year for safety reasons and had acted quickly to introduce the reduction factors for 2021.
But changes to such a sensitive part of the car always have the potential to affect some teams more than others.
In the evidence of the first race, Mercedes and Aston Martin were the most affected, with both teams within two seconds of the qualifying pace of last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix, compared to an average of 1.4 seconds for the other eight teams.
Perhaps Mercedes and Aston Martin have simply not been able to adapt to the new rules as well as their rivals, but there is a link in the design of their cars that suggests Mercedes will always be stronger than Red Bull.
Both Mercedes and Aston Martin (which essentially copied Mercedes’ design last year) have a relatively low rear height compared to the rest of the grille.
This low height at the back is called low braking in Formula 1, because the car doesn’t lean as much or tilt from back to front.
Unlike Red Bull and other teams, they drive with a much higher tail height, which is called high braking.
Of course, Mercedes’ philosophy of using low-lying circuits has proven its worth in recent years, and the team has won seven world championships in that time. But it’s also worth noting that the overall performance of a Formula One car is not determined by the height of the rear end, and there has never been a consensus that Mercedes’ approach is definitely better than Red Bull’s.
According to Otmar Szafnauer, Aston Martin team principal, the low-driving teams knew last year that the new rules would have a greater impact on their operations, but were powerless to stop the changes when they were imposed by the FIA for safety reasons.
I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but last year the drivers on the low tracks realized it would have a greater effect than the drivers on the high tracks, and we were right, Schaffnauer said after seeing his cars finish 10th and 15th at the Bahrain Grand Prix.
This issue has already been raised during the development of the rules.
And for the first time in the 24 years I’ve been doing the sport, I remember when we had to homologate the suspension because of COVID rules [cost savings].
You can only change it if you actually used your tokens before the suspension. So even if we wanted to go to 150mm at the back, we can’t.
So why hasn’t Mercedes switched to high brakes this year?
When choosing one of these areas, many other important design decisions, such as wheelbase, suspension geometry, engine conditioning, and transmission design, must be consistent with each other.
To move from a low track philosophy to a high track philosophy (or from a high track to a low track philosophy, as Aston Martin did last year) would require a redesign of the car.
Even if Mercedes realized the impact of the rule change, it would not be possible to make major structural changes to the car before 2021 as part of the COVID cost-cutting measures.
And even if the rules allowed it, it would probably take more than one season to develop the new approach.
So Mercedes and Aston Martin are stuck in their design directions, and it looks like they suffered from a drop in performance over the winter rather than that.
On the one hand it is unfair, but on the other hand it may be more important for the sport as a whole to prevent punctures and keep prices down. Now Mercedes and Aston Martin have to fight back with what they have.
Does this set of rules discourage low dependents more than high dependents? Well, that could very well be the case, Shovlin said after Sunday’s race.
In general, I know Red Bull won the last race of the season last year, but we were in the lead for most of the year and that is not the case now. So either we had a bigger jump on the rules or they had a better pace of development when they implemented the rule changes.
But it is what it is, and we have a car that can win a championship if we make smart decisions and do a good job with it and do that all year. Whether it’s high or low [makes a difference], there’s nothing we can do about it now.
What we absolutely cannot do is say we are going to raise the rear of our car by 30mm, because that would be the end of our season because we would lose so much [power], it’s just not practical.
Red Bull Advantage?
Max Verstappen leads Lewis Hamilton going into the first corner of the Bahrain Grand Prix. Lars Baron/Getty Images
Although Mercedes won the first race of the season, most drivers would choose Red Bull if they were allowed to drive the RB16B or the W12 for the rest of the year.
Based on what we saw in Bahrain, Red Bull has a faster and easier to drive car and Mercedes has no downforce in comparison.
However, our understanding of the overall performance of the two cars is still heavily influenced by testing and the first race on the same circuit.
The requirements of the Bahrain International Circuit are quite unique on the F1 calendar due to the combination of the layout and the surface.
Drivers will have to watch their rear tyres closely to avoid overheating, and the three long straights will test engine power.
Mercedes needed three days of testing and three practice sessions to properly showcase the W12 at the Bahrain circuit, and that was without making any improvements to the car.
It was simply a matter of understanding the car’s aerodynamic and mechanical platforms and adjusting them to alleviate the undesirable driving characteristics of both drivers that came to light during testing.
The team performed well and, more importantly, gained a better understanding of some of the W12’s weaknesses during its time in Bahrain. Bahrain is a very unusual circuit, it’s very hard on the rear tires and it’s very windy here, Chauvin said Sunday night.
Of course, we hope it won’t be one of our best titles, because we’ve had some tough times. I think we managed to get the car into a decent window at the end, but it was an awfully difficult job and when I look at Red Bull during practice and testing, their car drives very well and doesn’t look weak at all.
Perhaps the W12’s weaknesses won’t be so obvious in the upcoming races at Imola and Portimao.
Hopefully we’ll find tracks that suit us better, but looking at Imola and Portimao, I don’t think we’re good enough at high speed, and there’s a lot of that in Imola and Portimao, Chovlin added. This is an area where they now have an advantage.
What is our state of mind? Well, we still don’t think we have the best car, but we don’t think we have the best of the bunch either. When you design a machine, there are many areas where you want performance, and some of them, in our opinion, didn’t deliver as much as they should have.
So we will work hard in the coming races to improve the performance of the car. But I think it will be difficult for those systems as well.
There are some things that are moving us in the right direction, but here in Bahrain we had problems with the rear-wheel drive, and these circuits are a bit easier in that respect. But as I said, high speed is not something we are naive about and we think it will be our strength on these tracks.
Moreover, Red Bull will not sit back and try to make up for its mistakes in Bahrain by increasing its performance advantage.
What we take away from Bahrain is that we have a fast car and we have 22 races to go, Monaghan said. There are no winners or losers here.
We have some developments for Imola, more for the later races. Now it’s a fight on both sides.
We have to put the car on the ground and run so it doesn’t suck us in. We will bring as many features on the car as possible to Imola.
Our fate is in our own hands and we cannot influence what Mercedes and others want. We need to stay focused.
We have identified a number of areas where we can improve the car and we will focus on those.
We can’t influence what others do, so we have to design it, we have to make it bulletproof and we have to give Max and Checo a car they can drive as fast as possible in Imola, Portugal, Spain, Monaco and wherever we go.
It’s not just about going to Imola, celebrating the victory on the board and saying we’re world champions. It will be a long battle in a long season that will not be won or lost here.
There is a sense of frustration in the garage that everyone feels, but we have a fast car. We have a fantastic bunch of drivers and a good team.
Everyone knows that we will be tested along the way.
The two parties are arguing.
This may be an advantage for Red Bull at the moment, but there’s no guarantee it will stay that way.
This sounds like the perfect recipe for an exciting Formula 1 season.
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