Mercedes v Red Bull: are they really that close?

The start of the 2021 Formula 1 season has been intriguing, to say the least, with both the Bahrain and Emilia-Romagna races giving us plenty of talking points. However, one point raised before and during this season was how much ground Red Bull had gained on defending champions Mercedes. In this article, we will look at just how close they really are, and whether this is the season when Red Bull and Max Verstappen can topple Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton from the top of the Constructors’ and Drivers’ Championships.

Firstly, Mercedes stated before the season that they thought Red Bull had the better pace during testing, and could mount a serious threat to their hopes of an eighth consecutive Constructors’ and Drivers’ Championships. If we look at their testing times, Hamilton was two seconds behind Red Bull on the first day, and then three seconds off his teammate Valtteri Bottas on the second day, so there is definite concern from them that they don’t have the pace so far. It has been interesting to read recently that team principal Toto Wolff still feels, after two races of the season, that Mercedes don’t have the car or power unit to perform in qualifying as well as they have been.

Verstappen, meanwhile, topped the first day of testing, with was two seconds quicker on the second day, so had good pace and looked strong. Sergio Perez, his new teammates for this year, topped the morning session of the third day of testing, finishing in the middle of the table at the end of the day. Generally, he was around one and a half seconds off the top on all three days, so definitely gave his team something hope going into the race weekends.

However, testing is testing, and nothing counts until we get to the races. Hamilton won last year’s Bahrain race, with Verstappen 1.254 seconds behind him in second. In this year’s race, Hamilton again won, but Verstappen closed the gap to just 0.745 seconds, and could have won if he hadn’t gone slightly out of the track limits in the closing stages. This definitely suggests that Mercedes’ claims were right, with them facing a fight to maintain their dominance at the top.

The second race of the season was also interesting. The race was won and, frankly, dominated by Verstappen and Red Bull from the first corner, with Hamilton second and a massive 22 seconds behind. He went over the kerbs on the first corner, damaging his front wing, and later made an uncharacteristic error, going off track and into the gravel at the Tosa hairpin, and was as low as ninth when the race was red flagged. This was a sign of the pressure he is feeling this season, continually having to push hard. If that race is anything to go by, we are going to have some very exciting races this season, and some great battles between the two drivers.

When it comes to the teams, both need excellent lineups. Mercedes have had Hamilton and Bottas, both capable of bringing points home, for a good few seasons now, but Red Bull have had Verstappen alone doing that. Pierre Gasly struggled in the car, eventually being replaced by Alex Albon, who showed good pace but wasn’t consistent enough. This season, they went with Perez, with the Mexican having shown excellent pace and consistency for Racing Point last season; everything Red Bull have been looking for. Now, with him and Verstappen in their cars, they may finally have the combined driver lineup to match Mercedes.

This has been a brief discussion on a key debate among Formula 1 fans and personnel this season, looking at whether Mercedes and Red Bull are as close as many think they are. Mercedes are certainly feeling their rivals’ breath on the back of their necks, but Red Bull have been very quick to deflect their claims that they are title favourites, saying it’s Toto Wolff’s way of putting the pressure and focus on Red Bull, so it could be very interesting to see how this rivalry develops over the course of the season.

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