Why the tight F1 championship battle looks set to rage all year
“I have a theory which offers hope that we will still see a tight F1 title battle in 2021”
As we touch upon in the race reports of the two grands prix which have taken place since the last issue, the pattern of the season after four races suggests a narrative of Mercedes, having begun the season at Bahrain behind Red Bull, has since closed the gap (at Imola), drawn level (Portugal) and pulled ahead (Barcelona) at each subsequent race. Which has brought an inevitable sense of disappointment after seven seasons of unrelenting Mercedes championship domination, as emerged from the ashes of the Honda Formula 1 team to dominate the 2009 Australian Grand Prix. Now powered by Mercedes-Benz engines’ title=’Lewis Hamilton’ data-wpil-keyword-link=’linked’>Lewis Hamilton has won three of the first four races.
But actually, wait. I have a theory which offers hope that we may still see the tight battle that the opening couple of rounds promised. The two cars are quite different in their concepts and performance patterns. It may just be that the sequence of circuits visited so far emphasises different aspects of each car in a way that has coincidentally played out in a manner which suggests this narrative of Mercedes hauling in Red Bull’s initial advantage and proceeding to pull away. Had we experienced those races in reverse order, we might be looking at a story that suggested Mercedes having an initial advantage and Red Bull gradually clawing level and then ahead.
Stay with me on this. It could be wrong, it’s just a theory and the Monaco race will have taken place by the time you read this – which could have either destroyed or given added credence to the theory. But the technicalities behind it are valid regardless. It goes like this.
The regulation aero restrictions of this year have definitely hurt the low-rake Mercedes concept more than the high-rake Red Bull one, for reasons which we looked at in detail in this column last month. Compared to last year, the first four races suggest that Mercedes is 1.5% slower, the Red Bull only 0.6% slower.
“The aero restrictions this year have hurt Mercedes more than Red Bull”
Each circuit presents its own unique set of equations to solve, with variation in corner speeds, different length straights, track surfaces, etc. Generally, the high-rake car has more set up options available to it since the desired balance shift towards the front as the speed falls (the rake increases as the speed falls, shifting the aero balance further forwards than on a low-rake car) is more enhanced. So there is a bigger window available to exploit between the limitations of slow-corner understeer and fast-corner instability.
At Bahrain, the problem corner for the Mercedes was the hairpin of Turn 10 where the combination of lateral and braking load downhill was too much for the front end. The combination of Turns 5-6 – where the front is loaded up one way and is being asked mid-load to change in the other direction – was also a problem. The Red Bull with more balance shift at low speeds to counter understeer could be set up to be more agile. Within the constraints of the narrower window, the Mercedes was a little inert around Bahrain.
At Imola the Red Bull was still quicker – and for very similar reasons. The Rivazzas set quite a similar challenge to Bahrain’s Turn 10. It appeared that Mercedes, with its new diffuser, had made progress and probably it had. But the reality was that if both Red Bull drivers hadn’t made crucial mistakes on their Q3 laps they’d have locked out the front row.
In Portimão the Mercedes genuinely was as quick as the Red Bull. The flow of the corners didn’t demand such a compromise and the Mercedes could be kept in its set up sweet spot relatively easily. Couple that with the gentler way the Merc uses the tyres – because its weaker front end doesn’t give such abrupt load changes to the rears – and that gave Hamilton the cool tyres needed to stay close to the car ahead through Turns 14-15 onto the pit straight. Which was the key reason that he was able to pass both Verstappen and Bottas to win the race.
In Barcelona that tyre trait was even more important than in Portimão – because this is a tyre-degradation track, where the whole strategy is based around how quickly your tyres lose performance through thermal degradation. So even though there was nothing between the two cars over a lap, over a sequence of them the Mercedes was comfortably faster.
These are all just track traits determining which of the two cars is faster and each track is offering up a new piece of the jigsaw. The Red Bull can be loaded up with more raw downforce than the Mercedes – but often it’s not usable because the drag penalty is too great. At Monaco both drag penalties and tyre deg are pretty much irrelevant; it’s about downforce, grunt and balance – and a great driver (which both cars have).
The calendar during these uncertain pandemic times is still a very nebulous thing and the array of tracks F1 eventually ends up visiting could well have a profound effect on the competition between these two teams. But the message for the moment is: it’s way too early to declare that Mercedes has got this.
Since he began covering grand prix racing in 2000, Mark Hughes has forged a reputation as the finest Formula 1 analyst of his generation
Follow Mark on Twitter @SportmphMark