Max Verstappen took pole for the 2021 Styrian Grand Prix with a confident performance that had all the hallmarks of a title favourite.
This is Verstappen’s third pole of the year, one more than Lewis Hamilton and Charles Leclerc, who have two apiece. And really the Dutchman could have a couple more to his name, with opportunities lost to red flags in Monaco and Azerbaijan despite having the fastest car at his disposal, and a track limits error in Imola also cost him in the shootout.
With or without those lost poles, there’s no doubt the RB16B is the quickest car over a single lap — and it seems as though it’s getting faster still.
Red Bull Racing’s straight-line speed has been key to its Saturday imperiousness, and Mercedes, in particular Hamilton, has been quick to point out that Verstappen has been uncatchable on the straights since Honda delivered its second power unit in France last weekend — indeed even with the faster race-day package a lack of meant Hamilton’s couldn’t make an on-track pass.
Power units are homologated for the entire season, so the new engines in the back of the Bulls can’t be more powerful than the previous units in any substantive way — of course a fresh motor is more powerful than one five or six rounds old, but beyond that performance should be the same. That said, a new oil formulation from ExxonMobil for June has allowed the engines to run in a higher mode without the reliability hit, so some kilowatts have been gained in recent time.
But really the performance difference is down to aerodynamics. It’s been visually clear in France and Austria that the RB16B is running with less rear wing than the W12, which if anything suggests Mercedes is at least equal to Honda in the power stakes — it’s in aerodynamics that Mercedes is lacking.
Red Bull Racing’s aero package is clearly the more efficient, losing almost nothing in most corners despite a slipperier car, whereas Mercedes can’t match down the straights without losing parity in the twisty bits.
Suggestions to the contrary from the Mercedes camp, intentional or not, only serve to stir the pot for an interesting background narrative to this unfolding championship fight.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
Distance: 4.318 kilometres
Lap record: 1:05.619 (Carlos Sainz, McLaren, 2020)
Track record: 1:02.939 (Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, 2020)
Lateral load: medium
Tyre stress: medium
Asphalt grip: medium
Asphalt abrasion: medium
Safety car probability: 40 per cent
Pit lane speed: 60 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 359 metres
Pit lane time loss: 18 seconds
Fuel consumption: Medium
Tyres: C2 (hard), C3 (medium), C4 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.3 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.5 seconds
The Styrian Grand Prix will be a one-stop race in the dry, and the way the grid lines up means we should also be in for a straight fight between the title protagonists. Verstappen and Hamilton start on the front row, both with the medium compound, which should facilitate an easy single change onto the hard compound a little before mid-distance.
But Friday practice data suggests in a straight fight Mercedes will struggle to stick with Red Bull Racing. On long-run pace Mercedes was lacking around 0.2 seconds on the hard tyre to the championship leader. Neither team did extensive race simulation on mediums, though Bottas logged competitive times on softs.
While Hamilton said after qualifying he thought he might be able to stick with Verstappen, he admitted he didn’t think he had the raw pace to pass.
That bodes poorly for strategy around the pit stop window. Assuming the leaders remain in qualifying order for the first stint, there’s little reason to think Hamilton will be able to execute the undercut given his car’s well-known difficulties firing up its tyres on an out-lap combined with the switch being to the hard tyre, on which Mercedes appears to be less competitive this weekend. That’s doubly the case given the short Red Bull Ring lap limits the damage the undercut can inflict.
A closely contested first stint will put Red Bull Racing in an interesting position, however: sacrifice track position to bank on what should be for the RB16B a decent undercut chance or simply play be reflexive to Mercedes’s moves?
There is scope for the second cars to come into play here, with Sergio Perez and Valtteri Bottas starting fourth and fifth behind Lando Norris, and Perez is a particular one to watch given he’s alone among the four drivers to start on the soft compound. Not only will that give him a better launch, but it may give him an opportunity to harass Hamilton if he gets past third-place Lando Norris early, at which point he might make the move to undercut the Briton and distract him from the battle with Verstappen.
It will be crucial for Bottas to engage Perez early to prevent him becoming the joker in the pack. Ideally the Finn would jump him off the line to act as a buffer to Hamilton, but his tyre disadvantage makes this unlikely.
Of course this is all academic — more so than usual — in light of the weather forecast, which predicts an 80 per cent chance of thunderstorms from the hour before the race through to the chequered flag.
In the event of a dry race the rest of the top 10 will start on the soft tyre, but combined with the hard the two compounds should comfortably enough make it to the finish. Those with particularly amenable tyre life could even go soft–medium with some management, as was the case in last year’s Styrian Grand Prix, for which the same compounds were used.
If the rain is forecast to arrive later in the race, starting on the hard compound — there’s only a 0.3-second difference between the hard and the medium compounds, making the hard C2 preferable — could prove advantageous if it gets a driver to the arrival of the weather without a prior tyre change, potentially allowing them to jump those further ahead who will have to have moved off the soft compound by lap 30.