BusyFormula #008: Why Mercedes’ struggle shouldn’t spell doom for them

It’s become an all too familiar sight. Toto Wolff’s impassive face barely betraying the emotional storm brewing within. The cause? Car Number 44 crossing the finish line, trailing in the hot air of a car that’s definitely not a Silver Arrow.

And instead of the genuinely joyous but controlled fist pump of the Mercedes boss or the nervous leg shake of the Red Bull team on their pit wall, media cameras are capturing and broadcasting the exact opposite.

Because so far in the 2021 Formula One season, the Austrian team has gotten the better of their German counterparts. A niftily put-together chassis, riding Honda power, is coming alongside and easing past the Mercedes with far more frequency and regularity.

For a good number of fans and the media, Red Bull might have this championship in the bag.

Of sandbags and Dutch confidence

The seemingly sudden competitiveness of the Red Bull Racing Honda F1 team has pushed Mercedes off the perch, throwing upon us a season that keeps reminding us why we initially fell in love with the sport.

For starters, Mercedes had a really dull showing during preseason testing, compared to Red Bull, who had fired on all cylinders.

Enter sandbagging claims.

The general feeling within the F1 community was that Mercedes were still holding some cards close to their chest. A sense that Red Bull had shown their hand, but Mercedes was waiting to spring a well-oiled machine onto the hot tarmac of the Bahrain International Circuit.

The Silver Arrow had bossed straights, chicanes and corners for the better part of the decade.

So much so that another team allegedly used a past-year Merc and still caused havoc in the best of the rest schemings, much to the chagrin of Red Bull team principal Christian Horner and other bosses in the paddock.

However, come the start of the season, Red Bull continued with its perfection. Max Verstappen hurtled across the track fastest from the first practice session to the close of festivities on that first Saturday of the new season.

Sir Lewis Hamilton stood upon the top step on the podium, but that was down to his seasoned racecraft, inspired team strategy and a healthy dollop of luck.

Red Bull’s pitstop strategy banked on their speed. And it would have worked; Max only lost out by getting too greedy, exceeding track limits out of turn 4 to briefly overtake Sir Lewis.

A lot has happened since then.

A bit of self-sabotage and straight-line speed

It’s become clear that Red Bull just might have the best car on the grid, especially when it comes to straight-line speed. The Mercs just manage to edge to the top in the corners.

It’s become clear that strategy will play an even more central role in success this season. It enabled Sir Lewis to draw first blood in Bahrain.

It also played a role in his victory at the Circuit de Barcelona – Catalunya. His two-stopper snatched victory from Verstappen with 6 laps to go, a reenactment of Hungary 2019.

The reverse played out in the French GP this weekend. Max dove into the pits, emerging on faster medium compound tires.

Mercedes sabotaged themselves by not pulling the trigger first, even when Valterri Bottas had advised the team that a two-stop strategy was best.

This compounded a season of frustration for the Finn. He’s endured several subpar pitstops, culminating in a wheel gun catastrophic failure that dumped him out of the race at Monaco.

Max holds a 12 point lead over Hamilton in the Drivers championship; Red Bull is 37 points clear in the Constructor’s standings.

2018 anyone?

The first half of the 2018 Formula One championship was much like the current season. Ferrari had brought out the big guns, their SF71H demonstrating searing speed on the straights.

4 time world champ Sebastian Vettel claimed pole in three of the first five race weekends.

He also clinched the first couple of victories and was on the podium ahead of the Mercedes in many races where neither finished on pole. For the first half that season, Ferrari was back to putting in performances that whipped the Tifosi into a frenzy.

Just before and long after the mid-season break, the wheels came off Ferrari’s title charge. A few out-of-character on-track mistakes interrupted Seb, bringing Lewis back into the fight.

After losing his home Grand Prix, the Brit won all but three of the remaining 11 races to retain the Drivers’ gong.

As a second driver, Seb’s teammate Kimi Räikkönen packed on the pressure for the Italian outfit with a win and several podium finishes, keeping Ferrari in the Constructor’s championship fight and eventually dragging them to a runner-up position. 

Bottas underperformed in the W09, winning no race but reeling in points with podiums and fastest race lap acknowledgments, contributing to Mercedes’ Constructor’s title.

Blunt silver arrows, but not for long

Sir Lewis Hamilton and the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 team have been here before.

In a truncated season like the 2020 Formula One championship, the current trend would worry even the most staunch of Merc fans. There’s more than half of the championship to fight for.

The team in Brackley has countless opportunities to improve the W12 enough to give Sir Lewis and Bottas a pair of Silver Arrows sharp enough to pierce the Red Bull armor.

But they better do it fast; Horner and his boys aren’t resting on their laurels. In the meantime, back-to-back home races for Red Bull await.

Mark B. Mugaanyi has spent the last 10 years crafting content on a variety of topics including eCommerce, health, auto, technology and startups. Away from pounding on the QWERTY, he enjoys getting engrossed in a thick tome or getting first downs on Madden. To learn more about Mark’s freelance writing services, reach out here.

Mark B. Mugaanyi