Red Bull vs Mercedes: Who looks stronger after round one?

Have you caught your breath yet?

Twenty-four hours on from the first race of the 2021 Formula One season and there is a huge amount to talk about. For those wanting a little more analysis of how the race panned out, click here, and if you’re still unsure why Max Verstappen’s overtaking move risked the wrath of the stewards and Lewis Hamilton’s abuse of track limits did not, here’s the article you need to read.

But for now, let’s focus on the developing battle between Mercedes and Red Bull.

Who’s got the fastest car? Why? And will it last?

Red Bull faster than Mercedes

Max Verstappen led the early stages of the Bahrain Grand Prix. Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 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 of that statement came during qualifying when Verstappen hooked up a lap that was 0.388s faster than Hamilton.

Both drivers had clean laps and both cars had been honed over three days of testing and three hours of practice. There was no sandbagging with heavy fuel, no difference in tyre compounds, no excuses.

The majority of Red Bull’s performance advantage came in high-speed corners, although the RB16B held an advantage over the Mercedes in pretty much every corner type.

Verstappen was also helped by his Honda power unit’s ability to deploy more electrical energy at a couple of key points around the lap where the Mercedes hybrid system momentarily ran out of juice.

“We don’t really have any strengths relative to them, is what I would say,” Mercedes chief trackside engineer Andrew Shovlin said once the dust had settled.

“There have been a lot of years where we have been able to rely on straight-line speed or high-speed cornering or interconnected corners, but you look at it here and we weren’t taking any time out of them anywhere.

“There were a couple of corners where they really took chunks out of us in qualifying — the high-speed ones and also Turn 9 and 10, they were very strong there.

“That’s really the main thing. In qualifying they were just bang on the pace and in their best form they are just quicker than the others, so we need a faster car, simple as that.”

Lewis Hamilton managed to hold Max Verstappen at bay in the final laps. Clive Mason – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

Yet in Sunday’s race, it was Hamilton who came out on top and not Verstappen.

It’s not unusual for a qualifying advantage to be minimised in race conditions as the focus shifts from outright speed to tyre management.

A car that is 0.4s per lap faster over a single lap will quickly become a blunt instrument if it is losing 0.1s of performance per lap compared to its rivals through tyre degradation.

The situation between Verstappen and Hamilton was not as extreme as that, and arguably the Red Bull would have been even more competitive with a different tyre strategy, but Verstappen’s performance advantage was clearly smaller in the race than it had been in qualifying.

Mercedes won the race by going aggressive with its tyre strategy, pitting earlier than expected on its two opportunities to do so and forcing Verstappen to make a move on track to win the race.

In contrast, Red Bull looked flat-footed with its strategy, with a reactive rather than proactive response to its rival pit wall.

But that was a conscious choice by a team that knew it had a performance advantage, and it an approach that would have paid off if Verstappen had passed Hamilton without running off the track.

“If you are seeking an explanation of the race strategy, then yes, we could have stopped Max earlier for the second stop, but then you catch Lewis on older tyres [with less of a performance advantage to overtake],” Red Bull’s chief engineer Paul Monaghan explained. “Equally, he could have stopped later and had a greater tyre advantage.

“So our stints were move even and we had a pace advantage at the end.

“We got past Hamilton once and then couldn’t get close enough again. I don’t know if it slipped away, it was more that we played our cards differently and, in the end, by running past the kerb by two metres [at Turn 4] we’ve had to give the place back and that’s it.

“The car was capable of being quicker [than Mercedes] over the race.” What’s more, Hamilton’s ability to stay close to Verstappen early in the race was helped by an issue with the differential on the RB16B, which created more wheel spin for one rear tyre than the other.

Florent Gooden/DPPI/Icon Sportswire

Red Bull did not use the issue as an excuse after the race, but Hamilton’s proximity to Verstappen before the first pit stop was a cornerstone for Mercedes’ aggressive strategy.

“Max was having some issues with the diff in the early part of the race,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said after the race. “You could see he wasn’t happy and it seemed to compromise his first sector compared to the Mercedes.

“So we need to understand and look into that issue further. Definitely he wasn’t as happy as he has been in that part of the circuit in the first sector and you could see that was our weakest part of the track today.”

Despite the victory, Mercedes is not kidding itself. The Bahrain Grand Prix also served as an eye-opener for the season to come.

“I think it was probably Red Bull’s race to win today,” Shovlin said on Sunday evening. “We have just spent the best part of an hour talking to the drivers about where to improve the car, so it is pretty quick that you get your head back down to business.

“But that was one of the best for quite a long time, I think.”

How has Red Bull leapfrogged Mercedes?

Max Verstappen still looks like the driver to beat in 2021. Mario Renzi – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

Although Red Bull won the final race of last year’s championship, the expectation at the end of last season was that Mercedes would retain a performance advantage in 2021.

However, changes to the aerodynamic regulations over the winter appear to have impacted Mercedes’ performance more than Red Bull’s, resulting in the thrilling prospect of a two-team battle for the championship.

While that is desirable outcome for Formula One, it wasn’t the reason why the rules were tweaked.

The changes, which include a triangular section of the floor being cut out before the rear tyres, a reduction in the length of certain diffuser strakes and a limitation on the size or aerodynamic appendages on the rear brake ducts, were introduced to give Pirelli’s tyres an easier time.

The decision came after three tyre failures at the British Grand Prix that were traced back to the sheer force being exerted on the construction of the tyre through high-speed corners.

The FIA became concerned that the continuous push for more downforce over the winter would result in more tyre failures in 2021 and a potential safety issue.

The governing body can make unilateral changes to the regulations from year to year for safety reasons, and it took swift action to introduce the downforce cuts for 2021.

But making changes to such a sensitive area of the car always had the potential to impact some teams more than others.

On the evidence of the first race, Mercedes and Aston Martin have been hit hardest as both teams were two seconds off the pace of their qualifying times at last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix compared to the 1.4s average across the other eight teams.

It could be the case that Mercedes and Aston Martin simply failed to adapt to the new rules as effectively as their rivals, but there is a connection in their car design that hints that Mercedes was always going to be harder than Red Bull.

Both Mercedes and Aston Martin (which essentially copied Mercedes’ design last year) run a relatively low rear ride height compared to the rest of the grid.

This low rear ride height is known in Formula One as a low-rake setup as the car is not as steeply angled, or raked, from front to rear.

By contrast, Red Bull and the other teams run a much higher rear ride height, which is known as a high-rake setup.

Of course, Mercedes and its low-rake philosophy have proved successful over recent years and the team has netted seven world championships along the way. But it should also be noted that an F1 car’s overall performance is not defined by its rear ride height and there has never been a consensus that Mercedes’ approach is definitively better than Red Bull’s.

Aston Martin team principal Otmar Szafnauer said the low-rake teams knew the new regulations would have a bigger impact on their performance as early as last year, but were powerless to stop the change when it was pushed through by the FIA on safety grounds.

“I’m not a conspiracy theorist but it was pointed out last year by the low-rake runners that this would have a bigger effect than the high-rake runners and we were correct,” Szafnauer said after watching his cars finish ninth and 15that the Bahrain Grand Prix.

“At the time the regulations were being made this was being pointed out.

“And for the first time ever that I can remember in my 24 years of the sport, we’ve had to homologate the suspension due to the COVID [cost-saving] regulations.

“You can only change it if you actually used your tokens on suspension, so even if we wanted to run 150mm rear ride height we can’t.”

So why didn’t Mercedes just switch to a high-rake design this year?

In order to commit to one of the two design directions, a lot of the other key design decisions — such as wheelbase, suspension geometry, engine packaging and gearbox design — need to work in harmony.

To switch from a low-rake philosophy to a high-rake philosophy (or from high to low as Aston Martin did last year) would require a major overhaul of the car.

Even if Mercedes did see the impact of the rule change coming, it wasn’t possible under 2021’s COVID-related cost-saving measures to make major structural changes to the car.

What’s more, even if the rules allowed it, it would likely take more than one season to fully optimise the new approach.

So Mercedes and Aston Martin are locked into their design directions and it seems they have taken more of a performance hit over the winter as a result.

That feels unfair on the one hand, but preventing tyre failures and keeping costs low were arguably more important for the sport as a whole. It’s now up to Mercedes and Aston Martin to fight back with what they have.

“Did this set of regulations drag back low rake cars more than high rake cars? Well that may well be the case,” Shovlin said after Sunday’s race.

“Generally last year, I know Red Bull won the last race of the season, but we were ahead most of the year and that’s not the case now. So either we took a bigger hit with the rules or they had a better rate of development since they applied the regulation changes.

“But it is what it is and we have got a car that could win a championship if we make some clever decisions and do some good work with it and operate well over the year. Whether or not it’s high-rake or low-rake [making the difference], there’s not much we can do about it now.

“What we certainly can’t do is say we’re going to lift the rear of our car 30mm because that would write off our season as we’d lose so much [performance] in doing that, it’s just not practical.”

Advantage Red Bull?

Max Verstappen leads Lewis Hamilton through the first corner of the Bahrain Grand Prix. Lars Baron/Getty Images

Even though Mercedes won the first race of the season, given the choice between driving the RB16B for the rest of the year or the W12, most drivers would still choose the Red Bull.

On the basis of what we saw in Bahrain, Red Bull has a faster car that is easier to drive and Mercedes is lacking downforce in comparison.

Yet our understanding of the overall performance of the two cars is still significantly blinkered as a result of testing and the first race occurring at the same circuit.

The demands of the Bahrain International Circuit are rather unique on the F1 calendar due to the combination of its layout and track surface.

Drivers have to babysit their rear tyres to prevent them oveheating and the circuit’s three long straights put an onus on engine performance.

It took Mercedes three test days and three practice sessions to coax the W12 into happy set-up window around the Bahrain layout, and it did so without bringing any updates to the car.

It was simply a case of understanding the car’s aerodynamic and mechanical platforms and tailoring them to take the edge off the undesirable handling characteristics both drivers experienced in testing.

The team was successful in that regard and, crucially, gained a better understanding of some of the W12’s weaknesses during its time in Bahrain. “Bahrain is quite an outlier circuit; it’s very hard on the rear tyres and it’s been very windy here,” Shovlin said on Sunday evening.

“We are certainly hoping this is not one of our finest tracks because we have had quite a tough time. I think we got the car in a decent window by the end, but it’s been awfully hard work and if we look at Red Bull through the test and practice, their car has worked really well and not looked weak at any point.”

It could be the case that the W12’s weaknesses will not be as exposed at the upcoming races at Imola and Portimao.

“Hopefully we will find circuits that suit us more than this but looking to Imola and Portimao, I don’t think we are good enough in the high-speed, and there is plenty of that in Imola and Portimao,” Shovlin added. “That’s one area where they have got an advantage on us at the moment.

“What’s our mindset? Well, we still don’t think we have got the best car but we also don’t think we have got the most out of the package yet. When you develop the car there are lots of areas you look to exploit performance from and some of them we don’t think have delivered everything they should.

“So we are going to be working pretty hard to bring performance to the car over the next couple of races. But I think it’s going to be tough and at those circuits.

“There are elements that will move us in the right direction, but we have struggled with the rear end here in Bahrain and those circuits are a bit easier in that regard. But, as I said, high-speed is something that we wouldn’t be naïve in thinking that will be a strength of ours at those tracks.”

What’s more, Red Bull will not be standing still and will be keen to make up for its mistakes in Bahrain by hammering home its performance advantage.

“What we take away from Bahrain is that we have a quick car and 22 races left,” Monaghan said. “It’s not won and lost here.

“We have some developments in the pipeline for Imola, more for subsequent races. It’s now a two-pronged fight.

“We need to put this car down on the ground and run so that it gives us no hiccups. We will put as much performance onto the car as we possibly can by Imola.

“Our destiny is in our control and we can’t influence what Mercedes and everybody else wants to do. We’ve got to remain focused.

“We’ve identified some areas where the car can be improved and we will concentrate on those.

“We can’t influence what the others do, so we’ve got to develop it, we’ve got to make it bulletproof and we’ve got to give Max and Checo a car they can drive as quickly as possible at Imola and Portugal and Spain and Monaco and wherever else we go.

“It’s not all about going to Imola and chalking a win on the board to say ‘we’re world champions’. It’s going to be a long fight for a long season and it’s not won and lost here.

“There’s a sense of disappointment in the garage which is felt by all, but we have a quick car. We have a fantastic pair of drivers and a good team.

“Everybody is aware that we are going to be challenging all the way through.”

Fighting talk from both sides.

It may be advantage Red Bull right now, but there’s no guarantee it will stay like that.

It sounds like the perfect recipe for thrilling season of Formula One.