Despite the unfamiliar luxury of starting the Formula 1 season with the fastest car, Max Verstappen and Red Bull are in the all-too-familiar position of trying to hunt down Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton.
Verstappen has admitted ahead of the second round of the season at Imola this weekend that the first race in Bahrain was “definitely an opportunity missed” after qualifying on pole but being overcome through Hamilton’s faultless execution of a bold Mercedes’ strategy.
“But if we have the fastest car, then it’s not gonna matter,” says Verstappen. “Because then we have 22 races to finish in front of them.
“This [Imola] is not Bahrain. Maybe Bahrain was a one-off, but I hope of course not. I have a good feeling that it will not be.”
On the evidence of Bahrain Verstappen and Red Bull are right to be confident of many more opportunities to defeat Mercedes.
But while history isn’t always repeated it does tell us that usually when someone has a window to beat Hamilton in the championship, it can close very quickly.
Verstappen was frustrated immediately after the Bahrain race but quickly became philosophical, and notes on reflection that it “makes no sense to start smashing things or throw things”, plus “if that’s a bad result, then I’m just looking forward to the next 22 races”.
“There’s nothing lost after the first race, the most important thing is that you score points,” he insists. “Not like last year where you’re off the pace, and you don’t even score points. This time, we had a very competitive package in general. And we scored good points. Not first, but still second.
“It’s not the end of the world and that’s how I approach it for the rest of the season. There are 22 more races where we can do better.”
There are four clear threats Red Bull must manage over those races to ensure its early missed opportunity is not punished.
CONCERNS OVER RELIABILITY
Verstappen had a differential issue early in the Bahrain GP and also turned his Honda engine down late on to manage temperatures.
“In the race I was battling with a few issues so it was not the smoothest race from our side in general,” he has admitted. “So we definitely can do better than what we showed there.”
The diff problem was resolved “after a few laps”, he claims, but too late to recover the lost time and tyre life caused by the inside wheelspin he suffered initially in the opening stint. On the engine side, Verstappen confessed to “making some changes” to the engine that sacrificed top speed when he was getting close to Hamilton late on.
“We definitely could have done a better job,” he reiterated. “But I’m very confident that everything is fixed anyway for this weekend.”
Honda has implemented countermeasures for the Imola event although it’s not entirely clear what for given it had a few gremlins over the season opener. Sergio Perez and Pierre Gasly both required new batteries and control electronics – Gasly’s is believed to relate to a known potential issue while Perez’s change was precautionary.
The fast-tracked, heavily-revised Honda engine for 2021 was a reliability risk. Honda has admitted that, so it’s perhaps not a surprise there were some teething problems early on.
But Red Bull’s own track record is not faultless with some mechanical faults and gremlins of its own. And both Red Bull and Honda know the RB16B must function properly as an overall package to win the title so for the sake of argument we are giving them equal responsibility here for general ‘reliability’.
Poor reliability, in a title fight, doesn’t have to mean blown engines. It can mean anything from the problem that led to Perez’s formation lap shutdown – it was not a battery failure, which suggests some kind of physical installation issue – to Verstappen’s time loss when the differential settings weren’t working as expected. Small details always make a difference in F1 but especially in a close fight.
Mercedes has had the odd issue over the years but it has at least proven itself capable (time and again) of having the all-round quality to go the distance.
“It can be a good asset to have, we’ve had the reliability and being consistent and always getting the points and minimising any DNFs,” says Valtteri Bottas.
“It’s always been a high priority at Mercedes, and this year will be as well. It’s not only the performance that counts.”
Hamilton prevailed in the first instalment of what is hoped will be a 23-part fight for the world championship, despite being in what was clearly the second-fastest car.
It’s something that stands as a reminder of just how good the Hamilton/Mercedes combination is.
Sebastian Vettel was asked what he made of the battle between the duo and described Hamilton as “smarter” – a reflection of how he executed the race and small details like being on top of the interpretation of the Turn 4 track limits rules that were in place for the race.
“I think Max was faster, I think he had better tyres at the end of the race but Lewis was smarter, drove well, kept his head down and did what he had to. He had nothing to lose and everything to win and he came out and won. So it speaks [well] for him.
“Max was faster, should have won the race and didn’t. In that case, it’s really Lewis that won the race.”
While Verstappen had no part in the timing of the pitstop that gave Hamilton the track position advantage, Vettel is absolutely right that it was still possible for Verstappen to win. By “smarter”, it seems fair to assume that Vettel is referring to Hamilton’s vast experience and race savvy. Many drivers, perhaps even most, would not have held onto the lead in the final stint. Hamilton did, as he so often does in these marginal situations.
Verstappen is a formidable opponent and can in no way be considered not smart, but championships are won with good results on difficult weekends. Hamilton has proved he can deliver that regularly in a title battle whereas this is Verstappen’s first chance to do so.
MERCEDES’ CAPACITY TO IMPROVE
In any previous year when Mercedes has been the hunted and Red Bull the hunter, that analogy is generous for Red Bull. It’s often been hunting prey too quick to see, and with sub-standard equipment to catch it!
Now Red Bull’s got the faster car but Mercedes’ is still a fundamentally good one as well.
“I wasn’t really surprised that they were so close in the race because I think they didn’t have the perfect lap in qualifying,” says Verstappen. “And they are very close. Even though sometimes they don’t say it, they are very close.”
Plus Mercedes has two proven frontrunning drivers (including one of F1’s greatest) with bags of experience. And it won the opening race, so it has an early points advantage! So that’s a very, very good position for Mercedes to be in when it’s considered the underdog.
On Thursday ahead of Imola, Bottas said he’d lost count of how many set-up items Mercedes has tried in an effort to unlock the “huge potential” of its 2021 car.
A crucial element of how much Red Bull should be concerned by its rival’s capacity to improve is going to be whether those gains are realistic or are only ever theoretical.
A rear instability issue that dogged Hamilton and Bottas in testing was partially cured in Bahrain but the low-rake Mercedes concept has been hit harder by the rule changes that have reduced performance at the back of the floor.
Bottas insists “it’s still a fast car with huge potential”, but what if the rule changes are such that the Mercedes concept in reality is unable to produce the performance that it should on paper? What if it emerges there’s a fundamental discrepancy between what a low-rake car needs to manage the airflow at the rear of the car and the new rules with the cuts to the floor and diffuser strakes?
It’s way too early to get concrete answers to those but Mercedes seems quite confident it can make progress with its existing package as well as bring some development as well.
Until/unless it becomes clear that Mercedes’ car will be second-best all year, Red Bull will be watching nervously over its shoulder and can’t let up in terms of maximising the job with its own car.
UNCERTAINTY OVER PEREZ
The de facto number two drivers at Mercedes and Red Bull could play a decisive role in this year’s championship. We know exactly what Bottas offers – superb qualifying speed, the ability to win on his good days and consistent scoring. But there are still some unknowns about Perez.
Yes, he’s a proven race-winning driver, a high-calibre performer who has racked up endless results in the midfield. But he’s up against an all-time great in Hamilton and a great-in-the-making in his own team, so we can’t yet be certain where he will fit into this battle.
Chances are, he will do the job Red Bull needs – but qualifying pace is the key concern. He missed Q3 in Bahrain and despite revealing there was a minor braking problem then, he still could have made it through easily enough given the pace of the car. His race performance was excellent and the pace was plenty good enough, but he has to be up there at the front from the start.
While Bottas is no Hamilton, Mercedes knows it has two bullets in the chamber with him in the second car. Red Bull thinks it has that in Perez but he needs to prove it. With the midfield group ready to swallow up anyone giving away too much time in qualifying, Perez’s weaker suit – Saturdays – could define his season.
He’s far from slow in qualifying, but is historically a decent rather than stunningly fast Saturday driver. If he can deliver the top-four starting positions he needs to, then the spotlight will be on his race performances. He must consistently be up there, confounding the Mercedes strategy and racking up the points in the constructors’ championship.
He probably will be, based on previous form, but now is the time to deliver. And given he says he’s still learning the car and needs time to be completely comfortable, it could be that there is some crucial ground lost early on – in the constructors’ championship, but also in terms of Verstappen having a vital rear-gunner.