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Analysis: Why is Red Bull suddenly faster than Mercedes? | NOW

Max Verstappen will start the opening race of the season from pole position for the first time in his career in Bahrain on Sunday. In any case, Red Bull is ahead of Mercedes in speed for now. How did the Dutchman’s team (finally) break through the dominance of Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes? An analysis of the two main reasons.

Since Formula 1 switched to turbo engines in 2014, Mercedes has dominated the royal class. Every pole position for the opening race went to the German team since then (mostly for Hamilton), until Saturday in Bahrain.

A telling one-off, especially for Verstappen himself. The Dutchman has always started the season with his Red Bull behind in recent years. In the past four seasons, Verstappen was not involved in the seasonal overture. Now he is the first non-Mercedes driver since Sebastian Vettel in 2013 (also Red Bull) to start from pole in the opening race.

Verstappen lagging behind fastest Mercedes in first qualifying

  • 2017: +1.3 seconds
  • 2018: +0.7 seconds
  • 2019: +0.9 seconds
  • 2020: +0.5 seconds
  • 2021: -0.4 seconds

How has Red Bull been able to take this step in speed?

The most important explanation lies in the back of the Red Bull: Honda is in the last year as a motorcycle partner and seems to have pulled out all the stops for the farewell. Honda was un-Japanese indiscreet about what the power source would be capable of. According to CEO Toyoharu Tanabe, there will be more horsepower than the Mercedes engine of 2020 delivered.

Coincidence or not: in Bahrain, the cars of Red Bull and AlphaTauri are good for the day in the lists with the highest top speeds. Verstappen praised the Japanese power source this weekend and also during the test days. The fifth place in the qualifying of Pierre Gasly in the AlphaTauri is an additional confirmation that the horsepower is fine at Honda. They are not (much) inferior to Mercedes.

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The profit achieved with the new engine is not only in the power: the power source has become smaller and thus ensures a lower center of gravity. That’s good for cornering. The V6 turbo can also be packed more tightly, which in turn offers aerodynamic advantages. Everything that is not in the way of the many air currents that pass by, over and under the car has been included.

The new Honda engine is one of the foundations under the speed of Red Bull and AlphaTauri.

High or low rakes, the question is now answered

‘Rake’ is a buzzword in Formula 1, which has been used more than ever this season. Just to be on the safe side: if a car is high on the rear wheels, it has high rake, if a car is lower on the asphalt at the back, it is called low rake. The Red Bull has high rake, the Mercedes low rake.

Formula 1 wanted to reduce cornering speed in 2021 and has done so by lowering the downward pressure. The most important interventions for this are a smaller floor and restrictions of the diffuser under the car. Both parts generate a lot of downforce and do that less well when parts have to be removed. The big question was: who is more affected by this procedure? The cars with low or high rake?

The Red Bull (left) is behind much higher off the asphalt and therefore has a higher ‘rake’ than the Mercedes (right).

The Red Bull (left) is behind much higher off the asphalt and therefore has a higher 'rake' than the Mercedes (right).
The Red Bull (left) is behind much higher off the asphalt and therefore has a higher ‘rake’ than the Mercedes (right).
Photo: Getty Images

Mercedes and Aston Martin have been hit harder by the rule change

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The answer already emerged a bit during the winter tests and was confirmed by Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff on Friday: the cars with low rake – so Mercedes and Aston Martin – are more affected by the rule change.

The McLaren, Ferrari and especially AlphaTauri also have high rake, higher than the Mercedes in any case. Those cars have therefore come closer to the champion team. And, important to the battle for third place, they seem to have passed Aston Martin. This development confirms Wolff’s words and seems to be one of the main reasons why Red Bull now has the fastest car.

Do not cheer to early

It is far too early to declare Verstappen as the biggest title contender. The Dutchman has not yet won a race with the RB16B. In addition, the cars of 2021 have only driven together on the track in Bahrain. There is no guarantee that Red Bull will be the fastest again in three weeks at Imola in Italy.

Mercedes was also beaten by Ferrari in the opening race in 2017 and 2018, but still became champion those seasons with Hamilton. It is not without reason that the formation has been dominant for seven years.

The Verstappen fans can hold on to one important fact: Red Bull normally catches up with Mercedes during the season. Now they are already starting for the champion team. Never before in Verstappen’s career has he been able to participate in the title fight from the first race. Whether he likes it or not: now the Dutch is the favorite.

The Bahrain Grand Prix starts on Sunday at 5 p.m. Dutch (summer) time.

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