The Formula 1 season is nine races old, and the battle that many followers of the sport had longed for has arrived – and seemingly passed. But, as the Tower of Power might appreciate, Red Bull came to play at the Bahrain Grand Prix to open the season.
Max Verstappen took the pole and provided the omen for 2021. Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes responded by scoring the win with a beautiful strategic call. Still, Red Bull provided not only a challenge to the defending champions but looked to be the better car.
Red Bull has now won the past four races, with Verstappen taking three wins and Sergio Perez nabbing one. The team holds a 252-212 margin over Mercedes in the championship. With another race coming at the Red Bull Ring, where Verstappen spanked the field and Mercedes looked lost, there is no reason to believe the margin will not be bigger when the series heads to Silverstone for the British GP.
To gain some perspective on how much things have changed this year, it is time to look over the past five years and the Constructor’s standings after race nine.
|2016||Mercedes – 295||Ferrari – 192||103|
|2017||Mercedes – 287||Ferrari – 254||33|
|2018||Ferrari – 247||Mercedes – 237||10|
|2019||Mercedes – 363||Ferrari – 228||135|
|2020||Mercedes – 325||Red Bull – 173||152|
In each year, save for 2020, the ninth race came in Austria, the site of last weekend’s Styrian GP as well as the upcoming GP.
One of the first things that becomes apparent is both how good Ferrari had been but also how much it has fallen off since the FIA held the closed-door meeting with the team regarding its power unit. The team is still recovering from the quiet reprimand it received.
A second observation is that Mercedes has not walked to every title it has earned. That Ferrari actually led the Silver Arrows after nine races seems to be almost the stuff of fiction at this point. Mercedes has been so good for so long that it seems like they have sidestepped all challenges.
But in 2018, it was only because of Hamilton’s run of five straight wins after the summer break that led to Mercedes pulling away with the championship, something it claimed after the penultimate race.
What also stands out is how badly Mercedes beat down the competition in 2020. The gap between first and second looks like an historic pummeling and shows a team at its peak.
And yet the drop-off between 2020 and 2021 looks just as surprising. To see the Arrows fledgling is unusual, and nothing better supports that notion than Hamilton requesting upgrades and Mercedes’s honcho Toto Wolff indicating that none are coming.
Wolff stated this past weekend that the team is focusing on the 2022 car at this point and that the team would not be shifting its resources back to 2021. He asserted that the team would still be in contention for wins and that it would still find ways to improve performance.
But, alas, perhaps Mercedes does still have some upgrades coming, which still might not be enough to catch Red Bull.
James Allison, from the technical side of the Mercedes, insisted that the team still has upgrades for the MB21. While the comment may appear at odds with Wolff’s declaration, the two are not completely at odds themselves.
Wolff might be telling the truth and stating that the team has shifted its engineering focus to 2022. That does not mean that the team had not been working on upgrades and that they are finally set to be brought to the track.
Mercedes has done well in responding to challenges in the past and there is little reason to believe that it will not be doing so again. Winning seven titles gives a little evidence to the idea.
One of the question marks that will surround any such changes is whether or not the upgrades will provide the anticipated boon in performance. The reason for any doubt comes from Allison himself.
Long a figure in the sport, having worked at Benetton, Ferrari and Renault, Allison has been with Mercedes since 2017. His technical expertise is noted and the results he has achieved with each of the teams where he has worked are excellent.
But Allison left his position as Technical Director in April and has moved into a more supervisory position as Chief Technical Officer at the team. In the newly created CTO position, Allison focuses more on long-term planning for the team.
One element of concern might be that the shakeup in the engineering department has led to performance drop-off for Mercedes; that any upgrades will not bring the desired results.
Mercedes faced a similar challenge when Paddy Lowe left the team and moved to Williams, which is when Allison took over. The current switch does not seem to be coming with the same amount of confidence. While Mike Elliot likely has all the needed technological skills, he has yet to hold the same kind of position that Allison has during his various stops.
There is every reason to think that Mercedes has sufficiently groomed Elliot but until the team earns the wins while he is Technical Director, there will still be questions.
At this point, all the signs portend to Red Bull continuing with a fantastic season and capping off the last races with the current car with a championship. Unless Mercedes really is willing to take the fight to Red Bull to extend its dynasty.