Red Bull Strategy Hampering Verstappen's 2021 Title Challenge?
Red Bull were once again out-classed by Mercedes and it's slowly becoming a pattern Max Verstappen does not want to see.
Barcelona, Spain - Round 4 of Max Verstappen vs Lewis Hamilton is in the books and so far it's the 7 time World Champion who leads 3-1 on the scorecards. Another superb drive from Hamilton and a brilliant strategy call enabled Mercedes to take the victory from Red Bull after being passed at the start of the Grand Prix. Hamilton now walks into Monaco with a 14 point championship lead and a ton of momentum after what is his best start to a Formula 1 season in his career. Red Bull and Verstappen looked poised to even up the score at two wins a piece after Turn 1, but once again they leave a race weekend in 2021 wondering what could have been. Verstappen drove a terrific race and did everything he could in his power to put himself in a position to win the Spanish Grand Prix. Unfortunately, his team fell short of giving Verstappen the strategic advantage which could've seen him finish ahead of Mercedes and take him much closer to the drivers championship lead. You could argue that this is the third race of the season in which Red Bull have fumbled the strategy and have been caught napping by the 7 time World Champions. Are these team mistakes hampering Max Verstappen's 2021 title hopes and is it a sign of things to come for the rest of the season?
Red Bull Lost the Race Before it Even Started
Starting 2nd in Spain has only yielded 17% of the total race victories and with Hamilton on pole, it was an uphill battle for anyone to try and beat Mercedes. Verstappen corrected those odds however on lap one as he pulled off a brilliant move on Hamilton going into Turn one which gave him the all important track position in Barcelona. It looked good in the early stages, but in hindsight we can see that Red Bull's shot at winning the Grand Prix might've been over before it even started. When Verstappen pitted on Lap 24 for the medium tyre, it was actually not a scheduled stop as Red Bull had not called him in. Hamilton had closed to within 5 tenths of a second on the lap that Verstappen dived into the pits. Red Bull were not adequately prepared as the left rear went on late for a 4 second pit stop. Red Bull's Christian Horner said they expected Mercedes to react right away to their slow stop by boxing Hamilton but the fact that they stayed out meant Mercedes had a clear performance advantage. But even if that is true, Red Bull handcuffed themselves with their tyre allocation heading into the Spanish Grand Prix. For some reason, Red Bull burned an extra set of Mediums during FP3 on Saturday while Mercedes decided to save their extra set of mediums for Q1. This allowed Mercedes and Hamilton to enter the Spanish Grand Prix with 1 set of new Mediums and 1 barley used set of Mediums. On the other hand, Verstappen only had a new set of softs and the hard tyre which nobody wanted to even touch with a ten foot pole during the race. This forward thinking from Mercedes was a genius maneuver that played a huge factor in their victory. It allowed Hamilton to pull off the two stop while putting Verstappen and Red Bull in a no man's land of strategy options. Whether leading or not after lap one, the Mercedes strategy team had all of their bases covered and all they had to do was rely on one of the greatest ever to maximize the performance of the car, which to no surprise Hamilton was able to do.
Red Bull Not Learning from Past Mistakes
Usually the biggest problem with history is that nobody learns from it so we are doomed to repeat it. On Sunday, Red Bull did exactly that as they went with the same strategy that cost them the race in Hungary back in 2019. Although different circumstances, Hungary and Spain are both notorious for its difficulty in overtaking but that 2019 race taught us that fresher tyres trump track position at the end of the day. It was surprising to see Red Bull acknowledge the similarities of the situation to Hungary 2019 and yet go on to do exactly the same thing. Squeezing out 42 laps on the medium tyre was always going to be difficult but why not try something different if the team seemingly already admitted defeat at that point?
So what could Red Bull have done instead? Well going on the hard tyre was not an option as no driver even touched the C1 compound after Free Practice. So that just left the soft tyre option for Max. Hamilton pitted to his used set of mediums on Lap 42 which then put him 23 seconds behind Verstappen. If Max had boxed shortly after Hamilton's stop, he would've been looking at a 20-24 lap stint on a new set of softs which would've roughly equaled his opening stint which was 24 laps on a used set of softs. Even if he would've waited until lap 50 to pit, the gap to Hamilton would've been 15 seconds with 16 laps to go to try and mount an attack. Now of course the problem with this was the other Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas. But Bottas' pace was far slower than both Verstappen's and Hamilton's and Bottas also would've been on a worn set of mediums that he put on on Lap 23. For my money, with the pace advantage Hamilton had on the mediums and in the race in general, why not box for the fresh and faster compound to finish the race? I think as quickly as Hamilton dispatched Bottas, Verstappen would've done the same and it would've been the two going at it for the final 15 laps of the race. Horner's post race comments essentially saying there is nothing more they could've done is quite disappointing to hear from a team who could've clearly taken a risk when their backs were up against the wall.
Verstappen & Red Bull Finding Out it's Not Just the Car
Whatever performance advantage Red Bull had in Bahrain has now seemingly shifted in favor of Mercedes. The W12 now looks to be the stronger car in race trim and with Hamilton's magic, he's able to nurse the tyres far better than his Dutch rival. But blaming this loss in Spain on not being as quick as Mercedes is not acceptable on the part of Red Bull. One of the reasons why Mercedes has become so successful in the past 7 years, has been they're ability to win races on a Sunday in which they don't have the fastest car. Just look at Bahrain a few months ago for example. They were out-qualified by 4 tenths and were clearly still suffering from their testing troubles and yet they still came away with a race win. And why? Thanks in large part to great on and off track execution. That combination is what Red Bull have been missing so far in 2021 and if they don't correct that quickly, this could get ugly fast. Now it's not time to call it a day just yet, not even close. Verstappen has shown blistering pace at times and his qualifying form is a massive step forward from 2020. But against Mercedes, it's not enough for Max to drive the wheels off the car as he needs his team to do their part and outwit Mercedes in the strategy department. This is also where Max's teammate Sergio Perez comes into play. Because Perez was feeling unwell on Saturday, it compromised his race and gave Mercedes the undercut option which wouldn't have been there had Perez started in the top 4. He said preseason he needs 5 races in order to be 100% at home in the RB16B so starting on from Monaco, Perez needs to be right there with Max to shift the dynamic of this championship.
In terms of the car performance, Red Bull will have to work on giving Verstappen some updates that will help them with tyre management in the race. There was a comment from Lewis Hamilton post race that was very interesting saying; "I learned a lot about Max today and perhaps more than all the other races probably put together...and I learned a lot about his car and learned a lot about how he uses it." So what did Hamilton learn about Verstappen's driving style in Spain? Could it be perhaps that Verstappen puts far more energy into his tyres than Hamilton which leads to higher degradation? If Hamilton's adapting better to take care of his tyres, that could be a big factor in deciding the 2021 championship but only Hamilton knows exactly what he learned Sunday in Barcelona.