Verstappen unstoppable as Mercedes meets its match

A comfortable victory from pole, an extended championship lead and no signs of slowing down: Max Verstappen is Formula 1’s new championship favourite.

This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.

It’s easy to get carried away by the result of a single grand prix, but the cool dominance with which Max Verstappen won the Styrian Grand Prix is difficult to overstate.

There wasn’t a moment all weekend at which Red Bull Racing looked anything but confident. Verstappen eased his way to pole on Saturday with two laps good enough to beat Mercedes and comfortably led every lap of the race, lapping all but three cars.

Fast in a straight line, fast through the corners, fast in the pit stops — Red Bull Racing was unstoppable at the Red Bull Ring.

The gap in pace has been put down to the RB16B’s newfound straight-line speed, but it’s a furphy to suggest — as Hamilton has implied — that engine upgrades, banned in 2021 on cost-saving grounds, are behind Red Bull Racing’s gains, though the team admits a new oil formulation has delivered kilowatts.

The gap is all down to aerodynamic performance. Verstappen’s speed down the straights is thanks to his car carrying a slimmer rear wing, slashing drag, but the rest of the car’s surfaces are working efficiently enough that he loses nothing through the corners.

The Mercedes W12 is not as efficient, and boosting straight-line speed costs the car in the turns, slowing it down overall. And at the high-altitude Red Bull Ring, with air scarcer than at sea level, this relative inefficiency is amplified.

This would be far from a crisis just eight rounds into any other season, but 2021 is making unique demands of all teams. Sweeping rule changes are being introduced next season, and every team is focusing intensely on their 2022 cars knowing that new regulations present a golden chance to reset the pecking order.

But Red Bull Racing has left the 2021 development tap on — indeed reports suggested that as many as five deliveries of upgrades were made to the team over the course of this weekend alone.

“It’s a balancing act between this year and next year, but if that means we’ve got to work a bit harder, we’re fully up for it,” Red Bull Racing principal Christian Horner said.

The team clearly thinks risking its medium-term future is worth gambling on its best shot at a title in eight years, and resultantly momentum has swung dramatically in Red Bull Racing favour since its heavy defeat at the Spanish Grand Prix just eight weeks ago.

Mercedes, on the other hand, has admitted it won’t bring any new parts to the W12 this season.

It’s unfamiliar territory for Mercedes. Though it’s been challenged in its sparkling 2014–20 title-winning era, it has never been so lacking in pace to settle for second place as Hamilton did in Styria.

“What’s tough is that it’s the first race in eight years where you’re just lacking the pace,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff told British TV. “You feel they are eking away … consolidating their performance, so we’ve just got to get our heads together and get the best out of the package that we have.”

Wolff is adamant there’s performance to unlock from its car through set-up and experimentation alone, but while its engineers analyse the data, Red Bull Racing has opened a 40-point title lead and Verstappen sits atop the standings by 18 points.

“Naturally they are just faster than us,” Hamilton said in defeat. “There’s not a lot I can do in that respect.

“I’ve just got to keep trying to do the best job I can each weekend.”

But without Red Bull Racing’s developmental firepower backing his campaign, his route to a record-breaking eighth title is narrowing by the race.