In the 2021 season, we had a thrilling title battle, with wheel-to-wheel action starting as early as the first season in Bahrain. And while this season’s opener in Bahrain had glimpses of similar vibes, the title battle no longer feels the same. Red Bull won its sixth consecutive race at the Canadian Grand Prix and it’s looking like Ferrari wasn’t ready for the challenge.
Making matters worse, Mercedes is yet to solve their car’s issues entirely, even though the performance is promising. So what’s missing this time, and how can the show get better?
Car development and reliability
At the start of the 2021 season, the only major performance deficiency was in Mercedes’ qualifying pace. Race pace swayed from side to side, with each of the top two contenders debating whether to pursue straight-line speed or be quicker in the corners. On many tracks, Red Bull and Mercedes both had a decent shot at the win, which was every fan’s delight.
However, this season, both Red Bull and Ferrari teams are having reliability issues quite often. Red Bull has suffered four mechanical DNFs so far, while Ferrari has suffered three.
These sudden dropouts from races leave whoever is in the lead with an easier job to do strategy-wise. Leclerc incurred his first grid penalty due to exceeding the designated number of power unit component changes in Canada and Sainz is currently on his last strike. So if Ferrari doesn’t get on top of their power unit issues, they could get more of these penalties.
Red Bull also still has some unresolved issues with their car that might occasionally resurface and induce a mechanical DNF. That being said, both teams need to fix these problems, or else, we’ll end up with a championship won with barely any nerve-racking battles.
One standout observation this season is how George Russell has taken advantage of safety cars to get cheap pit-stops. And whereas there is an argument that some of these fell in his lap, like that one in Saudi Arabia, the Miami Grand Prix instance was rather more intentional.
The reality is that when your car isn’t performing that well, you need to lean on other tools to get better results. Last season, we saw this mentality manifest as early as the season opener in Bahrain when Mercedes put Hamilton on an aggressive strategy and he also took advantage of the changing instructions on track limits to deny Verstappen the lead.
Mercedes repeated this kind of risk-taking in Spain where Hamilton believed he could take the lead in his penultimate stint but was brought in to get a tire advantage. He agreed and immediately had the Red Bull pit wall predicting a repeat of his Hungary 2019 masterclass.
Irrespective of the cynical “They just had too much pace” argument that follows such races, these decisions make the race more interesting. “Would Hamilton have passed Verstappen on track before his last stint in Barcelona in 2021, or would he have struggled to follow and ruined his tires?” Surely, we will never know. All we know is he put 22 seconds between himself and the leader, with 22 laps to go, and eventually took the lead with six laps to spare.
Red Bull is excellent at reactive strategy so three races later, they got “payback,” as said by Team Principal, Christian Horner. Verstappen took the lead from Hamilton on the penultimate lap of the French Grand Prix after his first lap wobble had given Hamilton the lead.
Mercedes feared switching to the two-stop and whether they were right or wrong, we’ll never know. All we know is unlike Barcelona, the pace gap between the two teams at Paul Ricard was negligible. And more interestingly, Red Bull had disproved Mercedes’ model and undercut Hamilton, but relinquished the lead to pit again, which takes tremendous courage.
Even Bottas lost to Perez and was furious about his two-stop suggestion being dismissed. Hamilton had similar sentiments but was much calmer, and even later commended Red Bull for having a good strategy. The Mercedes pit wall was baffled and apologetic, and even their Team Principal, Toto Wolff admitted that they had the pace, but not the strategy.
Horner added that since Paul Ricard had been a Mercedes stronghold, beating them there meant Red Bull could win anywhere. It’s worth noting that this was only the 7th round of the season, but the tension and back-and-forth were already boiling over. We are currently heading into the 10th round of this season and it doesn’t yet feel half as tense.
So far, Monaco is the only instance where we’ve seen a mildly thrilling pit wall battle. However, I still believe these battles will be more captivating if the teams improve reliability and reduce the performance gap at multiple tracks. I’d like to comment on driver errors robbing us of more action, particularly in the case of Sainz, but to be fair, those were also present amongst most of the top four drivers last season, though less costly.
Lastly, a part of me feels like there isn’t any personality clash at the top. Last season had an evident one, which spawned evolving racing philosophies on track, keeping the FIA busy. But once again, let’s wait for the cars to get closer. These differences just might come out.
Aijuka Duncan Ngabirano is a motorsport junkie with a passion for storytelling through various media, and hodling crypto.