Pistons at dawn: Red Bull questions Mercedes engine gains ahead of US GP

With six points separating the title protagonists with just six races to go, Red Bull Racing is fighting for every inch in its quest to keep Max Verstappen ahead of Lewis Hamilton.

This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.

The scale of Mercedes’s domination at the Turkish Grand Prix surprised everyone, but for Red Bull Racing it was a particularly rude shock.

Though the difference between the two teams has waxed and waned through the season, ahead of the final run of races the two cars had arrived at a more or less equal place, promising a thrilling conclusion to the battle between reigning champion Lewis Hamilton and challenger Max Verstappen.

Even the spread of races should offer both teams opportunities to excel. Red Bull Racing is still counting on the high altitude of Sao Paulo and Mexico City to favour the RB16B, while the long straights at the brand-new Saudi Arabian street track should benefit the Mercedes W12.

The previous round in Istanbul should have been a neutral venue, featuring corner variety that would allow both teams a chance to play to their respective strengths and meet in the middle. Yet it ended as a Mercedes whitewash.

From the very first practice session Verstappen struggled to string together a lap that could compare to best Mercedes time. By qualifying he had closed the gap to less than 0.4 seconds, but in the race he was blitzed by Valtteri Bottas while Lewis Hamilton slogged through the field with an engine penalty.

There are mitigating factors to the Austrian-backed team’s uncharacteristically poor performance, with the combination of cold and damp conditions and an unexpectedly abrasive track surface catching several teams off guard.

Yet the team clearly isn’t satisfied to write off its bad weekend as a mere coincidence of factors, and Red Bull Racing boss Christian Horner instead turned the spotlight back on Mercedes.

“Their straight-line speed has taken a significant step recently,” he said. “We could match them with smaller wings previously; now we can’t get near.

“As I say, it’s surprising that they’ve made the step that they have with the power unit.”

Each team’s 2021 power unit cannot be upgraded this year on cost-saving grounds, and though Red Bull Racing has stopped short of suggesting impropriety, it has lodged queries with the regulator about the legality of tricks it believes Mercedes may be playing with its internal combustion engine.

Any straight-line speed advantage will serve Mercedes well in this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, which offers a similar challenge to Turkey but with a bias towards engine performance.

Mercedes has rebuffed the speculation, pointing instead to the fact Hamilton was running a brand-new motor in Turkey and to general aerodynamic efficiencies boosting straight-line performance.

But the finger-pointing is neither surprising nor unprecedented. In the first half of the season, when Red Bull Racing stole a march through the trio of races in France and Austria to open a points gap, Mercedes made similar noises about apparent power gains from the Honda engine, which the Japanese brand similarly brushed off.

And it was almost certainly Mercedes enquiries that prompted the FIA to tighten rules around pit stop automation in the middle of the year. Red Bull Racing’s processes were the fastest in the pit lane, but under the stricter rules the team has been slowed and forced into several race-defining errors.

It’s all indicative of the titanic nature of the struggle between the two most successful teams of the last decade. It isn’t enough to squeeze every millisecond of performance from one’s own machinery; slowing down a rival’s car is equally important. Appealing to the governing body to uncover another team’s secrets or have new technology outlawed has always been a crucial element of a sport that is as much technical as human.

And with just six rounds to go, the tighter the screws are wound, the more protesting we’re likely to hear.