Red Bull ready to rumble Mercedes for Verstappen-Hamilton showdown

Max Verstappen sits in his car with his visor open

After seven years of F1 domination, has Mercedes finally unveiled a car with a beatable weakness?

This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.

The preseason is infamously fickle for forecasting season-long form in Formula 1, but Red Bull Racing will be hoping that for once it’s bang on the money after ending testing atop the order ahead of the first grand prix in Bahrain.

Max Verstappen concluded the three-day test with the quickest time in what the Dutch prodigy described as his team’s best-ever preseason campaign. In stark contrast to this time last year, when Red Bull Racing started the season with a temperamental car prone to random slides and spins, Verstappen and new teammate Sergio Perez enjoyed three uneventful days behind the wheel.

The RB16B, a honed version of the machine that won the final race of 2020 in Abu Dhabi, handled sweetly out of the box and was rapid around Bahrain’s testing desert circuit.

“Definitely I think it has been the best,” Verstappen said of his preseason campaign relative to previous years. “I think from our side it was very smooth, and we are happy with our progress throughout the whole test.”

The quiet confidence emanating from the Red Bull Racing garage is worlds away from the quiet introspection next door at Mercedes.

The reigning constructors champion endured a torrid trio of days. Seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton and teammate Valtteri Bottas completed the fewest laps of any team through unreliability, and when the car was running it was snappy and unpredictable. Hamilton even uncharacteristically beached himself twice over the three days.

“Probably everywhere,” Hamilton said when asked to identify the car’s most serious struggles. “It just seems globally through the lap — there’s not one particular point more than the other.”

The team’s trials come as a surprise given the stable regulations that have enhanced Red Bull Racing’s car should have seen Mercedes do likewise after winning all but four races in 2020 on the way to a seventh consecutive title.

However, some minor but meaningful regulatory changes have been enacted to slash downforce on safety grounds by reducing the size of the floor. One paddock theory suggests Mercedes’s aerodynamic approach relies heavily on its long floor to generate performance, whereas Red Bull Racing has always operated with a shorter floor at a more aggressive attack angle and is therefore less adversely affected.

“I think Red Bull are looking particularly strong,” Hamilton reflected. “They are going to be a different machine or animal this year.”

But for some the excuse it too convenient for a team that has a habit of appearing undercooked in testing only to light up the track at the first race.

Verstappen, Hamilton’s chief title rival and heir apparent, isn’t buying it.

“You can see on the data of course what they are doing,” he told Dutch TV. “They did their fastest lap with less power … so they are fast, no doubt.

“So I still see Mercedes as the favourite.”

Number crunching — inexact though it is — suggests the off-track mind games and on-track subterfuge are actually hiding a genuinely closely matched duel, with Red Bull Racing quicker at the ragged edge in qualifying but Mercedes more capable with tanks full for a race.

It is the dream scenario for Formula 1, and with team resources set to switch almost immediately to the seismic rule changes of 2022, what we see in Bahrain is likely what we’ll get for the duration of this record-breaking 23-race season.

Never before have Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen gone toe to toe for a championship, and with Hamilton in the final year of his Mercedes contract and hunting for a record-breaking eighth crown, the stakes are as high as they come in 2021.