After a crushing Max Verstappen/Red Bull win in the Styrian Grand Prix there are some important questions to be answered in this weekend’s return to the same track. Is Mercedes able to strike back after Red Bull established a clear performance advantage? Will the change in tyre compounds change the competitive balance, indicating that different circumstances will continue to interfere with the pecking order?
Or are we going to be left hoping this is just a circuit that Red Bull’s invincible on?
The nature of Verstappen’s latest victory last Sunday was so impressive. It was typical of many Lewis Hamilton wins in this era – using a car advantage to devastating effect by gradually edging further and further into the distance until the win is basically secure and the gap can be managed to the finish.
Obviously the final winning margin was flattered by Hamilton’s late pitstop, and Red Bull didn’t quite ram home its performance advantage because Mercedes snuck Valtteri Bottas onto the podium in place of Sergio Perez. So the margins are still pretty fine. But in the conditions of last weekend, the Red Bull had a clear edge over the Mercedes. In the first seven races the gap between the two has been so close that tiny details have swung it either way. When Hamilton’s been quicker, Verstappen has been close enough to interfere. And vice versa.
That wasn’t the case last weekend. So now we need to see whether that’s an exception or the new rule. Truthfully, we will not get an answer until F1 heads to a few more tracks. This weekend might do nothing more than underline that Red Bull’s simply got the perfect car for this track and Mercedes can’t do anything about that.
But with a change in compounds for this weekend, one step softer within the Pirelli range, there is scope for the balance of power to shift. If the emphasis is on rear tyre degradation then perhaps Mercedes will find a way to manage that better, like in Spain. Red Bull may simply show that its gradual improvements to the RB16B have mitigated the weakness it had in managing the rears earlier in the season. But with some set-up work, after experimenting with a bigger rear wing last weekend, Mercedes probably has more scope to improve whereas Red Bull could be hitting a performance ceiling.
Seeing Verstappen extend his championship lead reinforces the fact there is a serious chance he could win the title this year. If he does it would be a tremendous story for F1, a welcome change after so many years of Mercedes (and mostly Hamilton) domination. Hopefully this weekend’s race is a little more like the other grands prix he’s had to win. A repeat of last weekend would just be a repeat of too many races in F1’s hybrid engine era, only with a different coloured car out front.
That’s not to begrudge Verstappen or Red Bull this run of wins at all. Four victories in a row for the team is a superb achievement and shows it has at least ended Mercedes’ dominance, even if there’s plenty of work to do to actually win the title itself. It just reflects how spoiled we’ve been so far in 2021. Most races have been real nail-biters with tense finishes or wheel-to-wheel fights somewhere in the grand prix. The Styrian GP was a much tamer affair.
Red Bull and Verstappen are welcome to keep winning, Mercedes and Hamilton are welcome to strike back and narrow the points margin to keep the championship as intense as possible.
Either outcome is fine this weekend if the Austrian GP restores the status quo and there’s barely anything to choose between the protagonists. If it doesn’t, then Mercedes will just have to hope Red Bull’s bigger advantage is contained to its home track, and things get a little bit closer once F1 departs the Styrian countryside.