Lewis Hamilton swallows big dose of reality at Styrian Grand Prix
Max Verstappen forced Lewis Hamilton to swallow a big dose of reality at the Styrian Grand Prix on Sunday and it did not taste very good at all to the seven-time world champion.
Verstappen and Hamilton started the race at Red Bull’s own circuit side by side on the front row, but that was as close as the Mercedes driver got as the Dutchman and his team turned in a performance of utter domination.
Verstappen and Red Bull simply had too much for Hamilton and Mercedes in Austria, and with another race being held on the same track this coming weekend, the chances are that the 18-point lead Verstappen now holds in the championship is only going to get bigger.
Worse than that for Hamilton, it emerged over the weekend that Mercedes have basically stopped developing their car, and Red Bull very much have not. “We need an upgrade of some kind,” Hamilton said, only for his team boss Toto Wolff to make it clear that one was not coming.
Until this race, the 2021 season had started as if it was going to be a classic, with two brilliant drivers and two fantastic teams going at it hammer and tongs with two very closely matched cars.
But suddenly it looks a little different. Verstappen’s victory on Sunday was Red Bull’s fourth in a row, and his third in four races. Is there anything Hamilton and Mercedes can do to stop the 23-year-old romping to his first world title?
A shift in the balance of power
A pattern is beginning to emerge over this season. Red Bull appeared to start the year with a small advantage over one lap in qualifying, but in the early races Mercedes appeared to have a small edge.
But since Hamilton’s last victory in Spain back in early May, things have shifted.
Mercedes were nowhere in Monaco, struggled in Azerbaijan, and were tripped up by a strategic error in France, where they probably should have narrowly won. In Austria, the Red Bull was clearly the quicker car – as it had already been in Monaco and Baku.
Red Bull have continued to add performance to their car – Mercedes insiders spoke of five vans carrying new parts for Red Bull this weekend alone, and similar at the previous two events – while the world champions are pretty much fully focused on 2022.
In this context, a result such as this was not a surprise. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner described it as “our strongest and most complete performance of the year”.
Hamilton had spoken before the race of the expectation that Verstappen would have at least 0.25secs a lap on him, and it looked at least that.
Verstappen slowly edged away into a 5.5-second lead by the time of his pit stop on lap 27; after the stops, Hamilton brought it down a fraction initially, but then Verstappen turned the screw. By the end, he crossed the line 35 seconds in front, although around half of that deficit was Hamilton stopping for fresh tyres to harvest the point for fastest lap.
“The first stint was all about managing tyres and I could see the pace was quite strong despite that,” Verstappen said. “As soon as we stopped to go onto the hard [tyre], that was a really enjoyable stint. The car was super nice to drive. It is not always like that but today I was really enjoying it.”
Red Bull’s step forward
Enjoyment was definitely not what Hamilton was feeling as he watched Red Bull edge ever further ahead.
“They were way too fast today for us,” he said. “I gave everything we could but they have obviously made some really good steps forward over the last few races. Their straight-line speed has picked up a lot. We don’t know whether that’s wing or engine but either way they were too fast and Max did a great job.”
Hamilton keeps mentioning the speed of the Red Bull on the straight, something he has noticed since the second of Honda’s three permitted power-units was introduced last weekend in France.
The rules say engine manufacturers are not allowed to make performance improvements during the season, only changes for reliability. So it is perhaps understandable that Mercedes want to, as Wolff put it, “analyse the facts and data and then come to our conclusions”.
He added: “In a moment of defeat, the initial reaction should not be pointing fingers at anybody or looking to find excuses. They have done a good job and the second power-unit they brought has been really strong and it can be reliability if the first one had degradation. Let’s look at the data and analyse and see what that says.”
Honda insists there is no performance difference between the engines, and that the obvious step forward in pace in the last few races has come from improved management of hybrid energy, and car upgrades. And the GPS information available to the teams does show that the Honda can deploy electrical energy on the straights for longer than Mercedes can.
Horner says there has been improved oil from their supplier, too.
As for the car, in the last two races, Red Bull have been using a smaller rear wing than Mercedes. This would be expected to improve their speed on the straights by reducing drag, and it has. But the car has also remained a match for the Mercedes in the corners.
Why is this? It’s impossible to be sure. But Red Bull and Mercedes do use different design philosophies.
Red Bull run their car with more rake – higher at the rear – than Mercedes, which means there is more air going through the diffuser at the back of the car to generate downforce.
Meanwhile, the lower rear of the Mercedes, which generates rear downforce in a different way, has proved very successful in previous years, but is not as effective following rule changes introduced for this year to slow the cars down.
It seems Mercedes need to run more rear wing than Red Bull – and hence more drag – to produce the same level of downforce. A smaller wing on the Mercedes would give them more speed on the straights, but they would lose out in the corners, and be slower overall, with worse tyre usage into the bargain.
Why are Mercedes not developing their car?
While Red Bull continue to bring new parts to their car, Mercedes have more or less stopped. This is a decision based on three significant rules situations.
One is the introduction of a budget cap for this season – teams have a maximum of $145m (£114m) to spend over the year, reducing to $140m in 2022 and $135m in 2023.
The second is the new rules for 2022, which introduce a completely new concept of car design in the hope of improving the racing.
And the third is the sliding scale of restrictions on permitted development, with the most successful teams allowed the least research and development and the least successful the most.
Wolff describes the decision to focus on 2022 as “very tricky” but also “rational”.
“We have new regulations not only for next year but also the years to come,” he said, “and a completely different car concept, and you’ve got to choose the right balance and pretty much everyone will be [working] on next year’s car.
“Some may still bring stuff – I mean Red Bull brought vans with new parts Thursday and Friday and, fair enough, it’s a strategy. One that proves to be successful as it stands because today they were simply in a league of their own, car pace-wise.
“But the championship is not only played with adding aerodynamic parts. At a certain stage, even the ones like Red Bull who still keep adding parts need to switch all of the development into next year.
“So all the exploitation of the car around the set-up work, the tyres and the optimisation of how we are running will become a very important part.
“It would make no sense to put a week or two on the current car because the gains would not be anywhere near the gains we are making on the 2022 car.”
Has Hamilton accepted Mercedes plans?
Wolff says he has “had the chat” with Hamilton and explained the reasoning behind Mercedes’ approach.
Hamilton said: “I am not going to question the team’s logic and how they go through their process. I would love an upgrade, but I don’t think it’s in the pipeline at the moment.”
But he was also asked whether he accepted that Mercedes will not be able to match Red Bull on car development, and what he thought of the championship in that context?
“I don’t accept anything,” he said. “We have still many races ahead of us and we’ve got to keep pushing. We are world champions and we can definitely improve if we put our minds to it.
“But if we’re not going to develop and improve our car for the rest of the year, this is the result you’re going to see because they have really eked out performance in these last few races.”
Are Red Bull sacrificing 2022 for a title in 2021?
If Mercedes are already focusing on their 2022 design, having decided that to work on this year’s car would compromise next year too much, what does that say about the way Red Bull are balancing the two seasons?
This is the first time in eight years in which they have had a chance of the title. Have they decided to go all out this year at the cost of 2022?
Verstappen said: “Yes, we do improve our car almost every race, which is very important because we have a good opportunity to have a good season and I am confident with the people we have in the team that the focus for next year is 100%.
“I don’t see that compromise, but time will tell next year if it is like that. But I am fully agreeing with the approach we have for this season.”
Horner said: “I can’t believe they will go through this year without putting a single component on their car. All we can do is focus on our job. Of course it is a balancing act between this year and next year, but if that means we all have to work bit harder, then the team is fully up for it.”
Have Mercedes written off 2021?
And there is a more immediate question for Mercedes. There will be a few more small updates to the car down the line, it is understood, but nothing like the amount Red Bull have brought to the last two or three races. So have they effectively already accepted their fate in 2021?
Wolff said: “They [Red Bull] will stop aero development at a certain stage because it would be dangerous to lose out for next year’s championship. The fight is still full-on.
“Austria wasn’t our best circuit in the past and it wasn’t today. It doesn’t mean we have no weapons in our armoury left.
“We will be winning races this season and we will be having pole positions and we will be fighting with as much as we can for every single result.” – bbc.com