The first triple-header of the year has passed – to the relief of many working within the Formula 1 teams – and some potentially season-defining trends have emerged.
All eyes are on the championship battle with Max Verstappen’s trio of wins in France and Austria (x2) moving him clear of title rival Lewis Hamilton.
Here’s a look at what we learned about that battle, the wider context that Red Bull and Mercedes are trying to manage, plus a couple of star performers beyond the title fight.
Max/Red Bull have the first real advantage of 2021
Verstappen’s heartbreaking finish to the Azerbaijan GP cost him a win and a bigger championship lead but he still came into this triple-header four points clear.
Three consecutive wins later and Verstappen’s lead is 32 points. He has a retirement and some change in hand over Hamilton, which is the first weighty advantage of the season.
The same goes for Red Bull, which pinched the points lead from Mercedes back in Monaco and is now 44 clear – the equivalent of a Mercedes one-two with fastest lap.
Mercedes has never gone this long without winning a race in the V6 turbo-hybrid era so Red Bull really does have the upper-hand.
Yes, two races on home soil – a track that probably favours the RB16B better – have helped.
But France was ‘Mercedes territory’ and Verstappen’s victory there is what kicked off such a bumper triple-header for Red Bull.
They have momentum on their side, the points in their favour, and nothing to fear. There’s too far to go this season for it to be a decisive advantage, but the one Red Bull has now is real.
Split strategies on 2022 are already impacting title fight
Over the course of the triple-header, Red Bull kept improving its car. A revised front wing, rear wing, bargeboard package and diffuser were among the changes introduced either in France or for either of the two Austrian.
The Mercedes remained unchanged.
Red Bull is relentlessly developing its car because it knows this is a huge chance to end its wait for a title.
There is an insistence from the team that it is not coming at too great an expense of the limited amount of financial and development resources that can be allocated to the 2022 car either.
This is a key area in which Red Bull and Mercedes have split their strategies. Mercedes stopped live development of the W12 a while ago and while there are some new parts being produced as a result of that work, that’s all there is. Whereas Red Bull seems to still be conducting analysis of the RB16B back at the factory and working out how to improve it.
With a budget cap in place and restrictions on windtunnel time and CFD work, anything spent on this year’s car is something that could be spent on the all-new technical rules for next year.
Mercedes doesn’t think it’s worth sacrificing 2022 because that’s ‘ground zero’ for the next generation of car. It could define several seasons of racing.
Red Bull reckons there’s less risk of a compromise. And whatever risk does exist, Red Bull thinks the reward of winning the 2021 championship is worth it.
Is Norris having F1’s best season?
The points have reflected Lando Norris as F1’s ‘best of the rest’ since the start of the year, while a couple of podiums have also underlined his credentials.
But with things like Sergio Perez’s first win for Red Bull and Charles Leclerc taking back-to-back pole positions for Ferrari, F1 hasn’t been short of fun sub-plots this season.
Those have just been race-by-race heroics though. Norris has been consistently brilliant. And the triple-header confirmed that.
He turned an average qualifying into fifth in France, outqualified and ran ahead of a Red Bull and a Mercedes in the Styrian GP, then stuck his McLaren on the front row for the second Red Bull Ring race and fought the two Mercedes on merit. His reward for that was a third podium of the season.
Norris’s Austrian GP effort drew mid-race praise from Hamilton who was moved to radio his team: “Such a great driver, Lando.”
The extent of Daniel Ricciardo’s struggles in the McLaren suggest it’s not simply that the MCL35M is an absolutely mega car. It’s clearly very good at its peak but Norris is the only one taking it there.
Is he actually the season’s star performer? It’s hard to overlook Verstappen given his championship lead. But Max made a couple of key mistakes early on, and Hamilton’s had some sketchy moments.
Norris hasn’t been perfect. But in the context of making the most of his machinery, overachieving at times, and smashing his team-mate, he’s doing at least as good a job as the title protagonists.
The real Alonso is turning up
Carlos Sainz has so far been the best of the drivers to change teams over the winter. He’s been the most consistent and he’s offered the best match to his team-mate despite that team-mate being Charles Leclerc. No mean feat.
After the triple-header Sainz only has two fewer points than Leclerc and it’s worth remembering it’s Sainz who banked Ferrari’s only podium of the season so far.
He’s done an excellent job and has started his career-defining opportunity brightly.
However, Fernando Alonso has been quietly lighting a fire under his F1 comeback.
After a slightly subdued start to the season, where Alonso admitted he needed to improve, the two-time world champion has been gradually more impressive.
In fact, since Esteban Ocon’s early-season form earned the Frenchman a lucrative new deal through to 2024, it’s Alonso who’s been head-and-shoulders the lead Alpine driver.
He’s one of only six drivers who scored points in every race of the triple-header, whereas Ocon’s on a barren four-race point-less streak.
Alonso is looking more like his old self. He’s extracting more one-lap performance in qualifying, he’s racing well – and he’s getting feisty again, firing off complaints about the conduct of his rivals and what he sees as limp behaviour from the officials.
The real Alonso is starting to show up.