KABIR ALI 16th April 2021

Lewis Hamilton provided another example of why he’s the GOAT as he gave a defensive masterclass to just about hold off Max Verstappen in a pulsating finish to the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix. The highly tense battle between Mercedes and Red Bull, who were clear favourites for the race win having dominated pre-season testing, practice and qualifying, was played out on the pit wall as well as down on track in a fascinating prelude to what will surely be the closest title race in years.

The Silver Arrows may have come out on top in this round, but the overriding feeling of relief over that of ecstasy in their post-race celebrations shows the threat of Red Bull and Honda’s package this year.

Sandbagging No More

Mercedes’ struggles in the 3-day preseason test in Bahrain caused the majority of the onlookers to roll their eyes and scoff, claiming that the German outfit were ‘sandbagging’ – deliberately hiding their real performance from the rest of the field to lull them into a false sense of security.

While neither Hamilton nor Bottas showcased the W12’s true potential, struggling at times to get under the car, the 7-time defending champions’ problems were real. This was confirmed two weeks later when Verstappen stormed to pole, bettering Hamilton’s time by almost four-tenths of a second.

The major rule change for this season – that of aerodynamic regulations – has disproportionately affected cars with a low rake design, such as Mercedes and Aston Martin, who struggled with Lance Stroll limping home to P10 and Sebastian Vettel enduring a nightmare weekend. Likewise, Red Bull sister team AlphaTauri had a strong showing as Pierre Gasly qualified P5 and Yuki Tsunoda enjoyed an impressive debut.

All this indicates that Red Bull have enough of an advantage to worry Mercedes, atleast in the early rounds while the latter continues to scratch their heads over a workaround. Of course, they’re not the only ones who can continue to develop their car over the course of the season – Red Bull themselves have mastered the art of mid-season developments having chased Mercedes’ shadows all these years. And unlike previous years, the deficit is not as vast that incremental improvements are not enough to overcome it by the time the season ends. If anything, the Austrian outfit has the upper hand.

The Bulls’ Chief Technical Officer and one of the greats of modern F1 car design, Adrian Newey, has long advocated for the high rake design at a time when most of the grid bet against it. Now, it seems that persistence has been vindicated with the team in prime position to benefit and take the fight right from Race 1.

Pitted Against One Another

Another understated advantage in this title race that was seen quite clearly was that of pit stops. Red Bull’s pit crew has long been the best in the game, smashing out sub-two second pitstops time and again and having the fewest slow or incident-filled pitstops of any team. And while it’s always good to win the ‘DHL Fastest Pit-Stop Award’ handed out of F1’s social media channels, Red Bull know they need every little edge to overthrow Mercedes.

The Germans on the other hand, had another pit stop nightmare with Bottas for the second race running in Bahrain. Any chance the Finn had of keeping up with Hamilton and Verstappen was thrown out of the window when a jammed right front tyre kept him stationary for a massive 10 seconds. Even Mercedes’ other four stops were consistently down by a few tenths on Red Bull, who thrashed out Verstappen’s final stop in 1.9 seconds. In a race that came down to just over half a second, this could well have made the telling difference.

The Honda Powerplay

2021 marks the last season of Red Bull and Honda’s F1 partnership, with the former taking over engine development from next year. The Japanese giants seem determined to go out on a high, having worked tirelessly over the winter to bring forward the development of the 2022 engine and use it for this year instead. If the early results are anything to go by, that hard work has paid off handsomely.

The Honda power unit has the edge not only in raw speed but also in terms of ERS conservation and deployment, which translated to the relatively big gap in speed between the Mercs and Red Bull, especially in qualifying.

Toto Wolff has admitted the champions are currently second-best in that department, though he vowed that improvements in the Mercedes PU were on the way as well. The aforementioned aerodynamic regulations have added another layer of complexity to Mercedes’s bid to claw back that deficit, and it will be fascinating to see how things play out in the next few races.

Supporting Cast

the teams won’t publicly admit it, at least this early in a season, Verstappen and Hamilton are their undisputed number 1 drivers and any championship battle between Red Bull and Mercedes will come down to those two. But that doesn’t diminish the say Bottas and Sergio Pérez might have in the race for the drivers’ and constructors’ titles.

Valtteri Bottas has been the perfect wingman for Hamilton since he succeeded Nico Rosberg in 2017, and as hard as he may try to convince the outside world that he wants to beat his teammate more than anything – there’s an entire Drive to Survive episode dedicated to it – the truth remains that he doesn’t have the ruthlessness, race-craft or consistency to dethrone Hamilton. Mercedes are perfectly happy for him to play second fiddle while consolidating their position at the top.

This season however presents a unique challenge, as none of Mercedes’ past title rivals had a driver pairing as evenly matched as Red Bull’s latest. Yes, Max is still very much the alpha, but Checo Pérez will be a lot closer in his rear-view mirrors than Gasly and Alex Albon ever managed to be. And if he can stay clear of the reliability issues that plagued Daniel Ricciardo in 2018, then the Bulls really do have a two-horned threat to attack with.

As the first race showed, strategy is just as important as the car and driver itself, and with two pawns at the top rather than just the one, Red Bull have every chance to win this game of chess.

The three-week wait after a season opener for the ages has whetted the appetites of the F1 fanbase to leave us salivating at what could be in store for Imola and beyond. Whether Mercedes make it eight in a row or Red Bull return to the top, what we can expect is for the fight to go down to the wire.