Mercedes vs Honda: Who Has the Power?
With a new Mercedes power unit for Turkey, Lewis Hamilton appeared to outpace the Red Bulls in a straight line, even with a high downforce setup.
The grudge match between Mercedes-AMG Petronas and Red Bull Racing Honda has given us a season full of controversy, speculation and both teams grassing one another up. The power units have been at the forefront of a lot of that debate, with Honda’s considerable step forward making it much easier to notice when one manufacturer makes small gains.
Notably, Red Bull’s impeccable straight-line performance at Paul Ricard prompted Mercedes to question if their opponents had illegally introduced an engine performance upgrade. Another saga rattled on soon after, this time with Red Bull accusing Mercedes of storing cool air for a quick acceleration boost. Now the conversation has emerged again after Lewis Hamilton took a fresh Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) at the Turkish Grand Prix and appeared to have superior straight-line speed to Red Bull, despite finishing behind both Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez.
The impressive power from the Mercedes has led to some talk that Red Bull could now be firmly on the back foot in both championships. After Turkey, former Red Bull driver Mark Webber voiced his concerns that the team are “no longer giving Verstappen the car to close the championship out” and he had “expected Max to run rings around Valtteri (Bottas) all day long” but could not respond. Are these concerns justified, or is this just a bit of overreaction?
Well, let’s first look at some of the facts. Red Bull won all of their championships with inferior straight-line performance to their competitors, managing to make up the deficit with better cornering ability. Since Adrian Newey joined the Milton Keynes team they have become renowned for running extreme levels of rake, where the rear end rides much higher than the front. This increases the drag coefficient and, compared to a low-rake philosophy, top speed will bleed off much quicker as downforce is added. It does, however, have the potential to produce higher levels of downforce and therefore grip. It is an idea that Newey swears by and, given the Red Bull team have won four Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles, it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t work.
With that in mind, it’s not a great surprise to see Mercedes appearing to reign supreme on the straights in Turkey. But we’ve seen Red Bull themselves look pretty handy on other power-hungry tracks where Mercedes should’ve had a clear advantage, so why are the teams’ strengths and weaknesses fluctuating?
Well, with each race comes a new set of conditions, different challenges presented by the new track layouts and, of course, varying levels of wear on components as teams use up their pool of power unit parts. Back in France, the conditions on the weekend enabled Red Bull to use low wing angles while retaining competitive cornering speed, while they also fitted Verstappen’s car with a brand-new PU. Mercedes, meanwhile, struggled to optimise their car and had to pile on downforce to stay competitive in the corners, sacrificing a hefty chunk of top speed.
In Turkey, however, it appeared Hamilton was running a higher downforce setup than Verstappen and Perez but still sat higher in the speed traps. But this was an anomalous race in many regards, firstly because Mercedes more than likely turned up the power on Hamilton’s brand-new ICE for this race, as he looked to recover from the 10-place grid penalty that came with it. Secondly, this was a wet and greasy race on a particularly unique track surface. These conditions can massively favour a high downforce setup, offering a better minimum speed through a corner and a lot more grip on corner exit. The speed benefits of running a low downforce setup are virtually nullified, so with Hamilton often sitting in a slipstream and/or with DRS assistance as well, his ‘advantage’ probably wasn’t as significant as it appeared. All of that comes without even considering that Hamilton’s engine was fresh out the factory, compared to those he overtook who haven’t taken a fresh PU for some time.
Perhaps Mercedes feel there is benefit in throwing a bit of caution to the wind and trading some reliability for performance with this new ICE. Christian Horner certainly thinks so, and it’s hard to disagree. Mercedes paired Hamilton’s new ICE with old hybrid parts, so it’s not inconceivable that they’ll have to replace more parts at a future venue either. It’s a well-communicated belief that the Mercedes engine degrades quicker with wear than the Honda does and has appeared less reliable in general, which could be an important factor in the remaining races.
The last three races have been won by Mercedes-powered teams, but that won’t have surprised many people at all. There are circuits coming up that should lean towards Red Bull, so Mercedes will want to ensure they have every horse available from their engine as they can as the season reaches its climax. Austin has been a Hamilton stronghold in recent years but Red Bull have also taken some podiums here – we look more towards Brazil and Mexico as venues for Verstappen to take a good haul of points, but then we head to two unknowns in Qatar and Jeddah before the new track layout in Abu Dhabi. Who knows which way the pendulum will swing?
Red Bull do have their mid-low downforce setup to call on should they require, that worked so well in France and Baku and contributed to their excellent recovery in Russia. Verstappen had some good straight-line speed with that fresh Honda engine that helped him clear midfield runners and the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas, himself running a fresh PU that weekend. Even in Turkey, the Honda engine didn’t perform too badly in the back of Yuki Tsunoda’s car either, who managed to hold off the much faster Hamilton for half a dozen laps. It clearly still has a lot of performance to give and Verstappen’s engine is only two races old, so I don’t think the concern should be as significant as it appears to be.
Verstappen’s apparent lack of peak performance in Turkey may have been cause for concern, but it’s worth considering the circumstances of this Grand Prix for the Dutchman. Sitting in P2 with a Mercedes ahead and his title rival back in P11, it seemed silly to go gung-ho for P1 and risk losing points to Hamilton with a big incident. Settling for a comfortable P2 and letting Hamilton do all the hard work is the definition of “thinking about the championship”, which many have criticised Verstappen for not doing on various occasions.
Don’t forget Verstappen had chronic understeer issues all weekend and did lose straight-line speed on his final Q3 lap – without it, he could’ve inherited pole himself. He also won’t have wanted to push his new PU to the limit if he didn’t have to, particularly after being forced to do that from the back of the grid in Russia. I think a P2 maximised the potential of his car on this weekend and kept him out of significant trouble, exactly what Red Bull will have wanted.
To conclude then, I don’t think Red Bull fans should be all that worried. The speculation in the press is just that, suggestions based on observation. It’s easy to come to conclusions by looking at one race in isolation but the bigger picture looks quite a bit different. I think we can only really see the true effects of Mercedes’ new power unit and alleged improvements once we watch the next couple of races unfold. There was hope that Red Bull could take the fight to Mercedes on the Circuit of the Americas, a venue which shouldn’t really favour either team on paper, and I don’t feel that hope should be quashed by the events at Istanbul Park last weekend. Given how strong Red Bull Honda have been and how much effort they've put into 2021 already, we can be sure they won't be giving this one up without a fight.