Mercedes vs Red Bull: The 2021 World Championship Battle
We're set to see a fierce battle for the 2021 F1 world titles. Is this new season a clear-cut opportunity for Red Bull to improve their fortunes?
It is no surprise that a sizeable amount of the pre-season debate has been about this enticing battle for the top spot, as for far too long no team has truly mounted a sustained challenge to Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton’s crowns. Since Hamilton’s first Mercedes title in 2014, there have only been two notable contests for the Driver’s World Championship – Nico Rosberg’s 2016 championship-winning season in the sister Mercedes, then Sebastian Vettel’s 2018 challenge with Ferrari where he looked destined for the title, only to flop after the summer break.
Hamilton alone has won 73 of the 138 races since the turbo-hybrid era began in 2014, Mercedes as a team a staggering 102. Meanwhile, closest challengers Red Bull and Ferrari have won only 17 races each and just two races have been won by other constructors. Following a disastrous season in 2020, Ferrari cannot be considered a title challenger this time round despite some optimistic whispers coming out of Maranello recently, so if we are to see a different team topping the tables come December, it would seem it is Red Bull or bust.
Even if one were to exclude the vast difference in turbo-hybrid race wins, Red Bull have a clear Achilles heel that must be addressed if they are to be considered serious challengers. It has become an annual occurrence seeing Red Bull’s chances hyped up to the hilt, only for them to struggle in the early rounds and play catch-up for the remainder of the season. The most irritating thing as fans is that Red Bull have consistently evolved their package and ended the season as the fastest car or on par with the Mercedes, only to rinse and repeat and fall behind again early in the next season. For the Milton Keynes team, the key to winning the title is very simple – keep developing at the strong pace they usually do, but start with a better baseline.
2021 looks set to be the closest battle to date between two of F1's most talented drivers, Lewis Hamilton (left) and Max Verstappen.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Red Bull have had seven attempts to come out the blocks quickest since the start of Mercedes’ domination and thus far they’ve failed every time. However, there are some key factors that work in their favour as they aim to make it eighth time lucky. The team’s biggest problem at the start of last season was the unpredictable, unstable handling. The team blamed this on a ‘correlation issue’ – simply put, the data from their aerodynamics tests in the wind tunnel did not match up with their on-track data. But with the regulations subject to only minimal adjustments this season, the package should just be a further evolution of what they spent all of last season working on. Last season’s second driver Alex Albon has recently stated that work over the winter has translated into a ‘good understanding of the RB16B’s personality’. The team lose their biggest excuse from last year by making that claim, so they’d better hope that’s true.
One other considerable factor from 2020 was mentioned briefly earlier, which was Alex Albon and his inconsistency. Red Bull had a number of chances to rob points from Mercedes in 2020, but they would regularly find themselves outnumbered with Albon languishing in the midfield. The Thai driver has been replaced for 2021 by the experienced Sergio Perez, who will hopefully give their lead driver Max Verstappen reliable support in his race battles against the mighty Mercs. The most effective way to unsettle Mercedes will be to have Perez breathing down the necks of the Mercedes duo and Verstappen relentlessly, hopefully unsettling their rivals and pushing Verstappen to another level. Perez will also be crucial for the team in sweeping up points should Verstappen have problems. They simply must land those punches in the early races.
The arrival of Sergio Perez as Max Verstappen's teammate could be crucial in Red Bull's 2021 title charge.
On the face of it, Honda’s announcement that they will not be providing power units after this season appears to be bad news for Red Bull and sister team AlphaTauri, but it actually has the potential to benefit them both in the long term. There is no doubt that Honda will be throwing everything they have into giving Red Bull a title-winning power unit, and since Honda’s power unit production will be taken over by Red Bull from next season onwards, both parties will want to make sure they deliver the best product possible for the team to take forward into future seasons. The upcoming engine freeze benefits Red Bull greatly, as it has enabled them to retain Honda technology rather than sourcing a PU from elsewhere. Honda have brought their power unit proposal for 2022 forward a year and will continue to develop that design throughout this season, with the aim of delivering the best product possible before they bow out of the sport, one which they hope will outperform the dominant Mercedes power unit.
The problem that Red Bull and Honda have is that they’re not just up against any old Formula 1 team. Turbo-hybrid era Mercedes have delivered one of the greatest dominations in the history of the sport, with no team ever being in sight of a constructors’ title in that time. The drivers have consistently nailed their performances across the race weekends, the team have mastered manufacturing and understood their car perfectly year after year, if there’s speed to be gained or a loophole to be exploited, Mercedes have it covered. Red Bull will have to go toe-to-toe with one of the largest superpowers in motorsport history that have looked unassailable in Formula 1 for seven years. I expect it to be a fierce, possibly heated battle.
Red Bull will hope that sustained pressure by their two drivers will unsettle Mercedes, possibly pushing them into unforced errors.
Even if Red Bull’s RB16B performs considerably better than its predecessor from the very beginning, there’s still a real possibility that Mercedes will have made even greater gains with their new W12. We’ve become accustomed to seeing Mercedes finish their development before one season has ended to ensure they’re still comfortably the fastest car when the next season starts. I don’t anticipate Mercedes taking their foot off the pedal, particularly with an eighth world title for Lewis Hamilton in the pipeline and with Max Verstappen emerging victorious in 2020’s final Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi. They know Red Bull and Honda will be giving it everything this year, so like they’ve done throughout the current era of Formula 1, I fully expect them to cover it off.
Max Verstappen won the final Grand Prix of 2020 in Abu Dhabi, a venue where Mercedes have dominated in recent seasons. Mercedes will surely be even hungrier to start the 2021 season on the front foot following that surprise.
While Mercedes stopped development before the Portuguese Grand Prix, rumour has it that Red Bull also stopped their major developments at a similar time. Christian Horner also recently stated that the RB16B is an ‘extensive update’ on last year’s car, further fuelling possibility that Red Bull may have matched Mercedes’ off-season development. Testing will give us some idea of where the two teams are at, but the likelihood is that both teams will not fully show their hand until the first race at the end of March. I will be focusing more heavily on Red Bull than Mercedes during the tests, though, as I’d expect the car to be much more obedient if Alex Albon’s promising comments are to be believed. The talk of the town this time last year was Mercedes’ new DAS system which has been outlawed for 2021 – not only will it be interesting to see how much or how little the removal of DAS affects Mercedes, we might also get a sneak peek at some other new innovative features.
Red Bull were deliberately careful when photographing their new car and doing a lot of running in the old RB15 at their shakedown. It’s meant they’ve concealed key characteristics of their new challenger like the bargeboards and the rear floor and suspension, where a redesign has been necessary after a change in the regulations. This could either be a sign that they’ve made significant advancements in that area or it’s a complete red herring, but we’ll find out soon enough. Mercedes are yet to reveal their W12 but it will be intriguing to see whether or not they follow suit with Red Bull, perhaps with distractions or talking points of their own.
We haven’t got too long to wait now until racing resumes and we get to see who tops the pack at the first race in Bahrain. I fully expect it to be Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton. Perhaps it won’t be by as wide a margin as we’re used to and there is definitely a glaring opportunity for Red Bull or a midfield frontrunner to challenge Mercedes more closely this term, but initially I do expect to see Mercedes fronting the field again. That being said, everything seems to be falling into place quite nicely for Red Bull at the moment, so maybe it bodes well in their latest attempt to win a world title. Expect some fireworks throughout the season as the drivers battle it out for supremacy at the pinnacle of motorsport.