Analysis: Red Bull looks stronger than Mercedes, but how clouded is that image?

With a flawless debut by the RB16B and Max Verstappen topping the times list for two days, the sun is shining at Red Bull after a long weekend of preparing for the Formula 1 season. Clouds gather above Mercedes. But is this image justified? An analysis based on three main issues.

Main issue 1: Reliability and kilometers traveled

After the winter tests of 2020, Mercedes proudly topped the list of laps completed. Now that three days of preparations for 2021 in Bahrain have been completed, the championship team dangles right at the bottom of that list. It is one of the striking things about Mercedes towards the start of the season.

At the same time, Red Bull drove ‘only’ 65 more (369 at 304 laps), and this difference can be explained by the gearbox problem that already cost Mercedes time on Friday morning.

Laps driven per team

  • AlphaTauri: 422 rounds
  • Alfa Romeo: 422 laps
  • Ferrari: 404 laps
  • Alpine: 396 laps
  • Hare: 394 rounds
  • Williams: 373 rounds
  • Red Bull: 369 laps
  • McLaren: 327 laps
  • Aston Martin: 314 laps
  • Mercedes: 304 laps

But still, Red Bull did not suffer from a major problem. The new Honda engine spun around Bahrain carefree and the only visible problem was Sergio Pérez’s bonnet blowing off when he overtook a Williams on the straight.

Let’s go back to the list of laps: the other Mercedes teams Aston Martin, Williams and McLaren are also in the lower regions. Does that say anything about reliability?

Perhaps, but after last year’s winter tests there were also concerns about the Mercedes engine, Verstappen was then half a second behind Bottas and Hamilton in the first qualifying session, and the Limburger retired a day later in Austria.

Bottom Line 2: The nonsense of lap times

Lap times say nothing, is the cliché about the winter tests. That doesn’t make it any less true. There are too many variables to expect, based on Verstappen’s fastest time over three days (1.28,960), that Red Bull will suddenly be ahead of Mercedes in speed.

Most importantly, it is unknown with how much fuel the times were put on board. Verstappen may have driven with an almost empty tank, while Hamilton went around with a 30 liters of petrol on board, or vice versa.

The Limburger was a second faster than Hamilton on Sunday, while the reigning champion was softer (and therefore faster) on a tire compound. It is not realistic to think that Red Bull has suddenly gained so much speed on Mercedes, with which comparing the times is immediately pointless.

The fastest times of Red Bull and Mercedes

  • 1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull): 1.28.960
  • 2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes): 1.30.025

Main thing 3: The handling gives something away

What is striking is that the Red Bull looks a lot more stable than in 2020. Certainly during last year’s winter tests, Verstappen and Alexander Albon were more often backwards than they would have liked. In that light, it might be an advantage that the cars are largely the same as they were in 2020: Red Bull has had enough time to refine this problem and perfect the car. This was already apparent at the end of last season, and has only been confirmed during the winter tests.

At Mercedes it is exactly the other way around: the 2020 car seemed to continuously do exactly what the drivers wanted. The W12 that debuted in Bahrain in recent days looked unstable in the corners, something confirmed by the drivers and demonstrated by Hamilton’s rare spin on Saturday morning. It is still guesswork as to the cause, but of course a rule change has been made that mainly relates to the downward pressure at the rear of the car.

Other sounds from Mercedes

Mercedes already had a completely different concept than Red Bull, because that car is much closer to the asphalt. This is also called the rake of the car, of which the Mercedes has little and Red Bull a lot. It is not inconceivable that the cars with little rake more are affected by the modified rules.

From Mercedes every year there are invariably the sounds that Red Bull (or rather Ferrari) looks strong and that it will be a tough season. To then claim the title freely or very dominantly.

This year, those noises from the team are stronger than normal. The Mercedes drivers struggle more with the car than Verstappen and Pérez. If an opening appears somewhere for Red Bull in the Mercedes bastion, it is there.
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