In the Mercedes dominated F1 season the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday was an anomaly.
In a straight fight and on the circuit where Mercedes has won every Grand Prix since 2014, Red Bull took not only a pole position, but also a convincing victory.
It was only the second victory of the team this year, which may not sound exciting, but the time and the way in which it was scored could indicate a more competitive season next year.
For too long, only one team has dominated Formula 1, whether it is Red Bull between 2010 and 2013 or Mercedes from 2014, and the prospect of a real title race is simply fascinating.
But anyone who has looked at the dominance of Mercedes over the past seven years will also remember the many false starts of rival teams.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Max Verstappen celebrates with his team the second victory of the Red Bull. Hamad and Mohammed – Polish/Getty Pictures
The difference is that the basis for the design of the car this year in 2021 will be used again to reduce costs.
The development stop does not apply to the aerodynamics of the vehicle, which this year will be subject to a new set of rules aimed at reducing the sagging of the tyres to relieve them after a series of breakdowns.
But a solid platform at the end of 2020 should ensure a good start to the 2021 season, which has been lacking in Red Bull’s title campaigns in recent years.
All this led to the question whether the victory of Red Bull in Abu Dhabi was a sign that something could happen, or that it was just a flash of the dominance of Mercedes in the sport?
Mercedes just made a mistake in Abu Dhabi?
Fault! The file name is not specified. Mercedes celebrated its two championships in Abu Dhabi, but missed the race victory. Dan Istitene – Formula 1/ Formula 1 via Getty Images).
In a word, yes.
Look at the Abu Dhabi qualifiers, and it’s not just Max Verstappen’s pole position lap that stands out.
In a year in which Mercedes was consistently more than 0.7 seconds ahead of the rest of the field, Lando Norris McLaren was just 0.2 seconds behind Waltery Bottas and Lewis Hamilton.
While Norris deserved much praise for his fantastic qualifying lap, McLaren couldn’t suddenly narrow the gap to Mercedes by a few tenths.
A more logical conclusion is that Mercedes has slipped and that Red Bull and McLaren have used it.
Both Mercedes drivers complained of understeer in both qualifying and the race – the front tyres didn’t provide the necessary grip to meet the driver’s steering requirements – and the lack of balance in the set-up of the car was an important factor.
The Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi has a diverse circle, with a fast first sector and a narrow last sector. The ideal setting is neutral, allowing the driver to push with confidence and save the tyres.
The Mercedes technicians were lulled into a false sense of security by their own actions by a promising test session on Friday, during which the car seemed to be well balanced.
Satisfied with the car’s handling, Mercedes spent most of its time preparing for next year’s race on Friday night (when conditions are closest to qualifying and racing).
Mercedes has already won both titles this year, so it is clear that the developers have focused on 2021.
For Friday’s second training session, Pirelli provided each rider with a set of 2021 tyres, otherwise designed to prevent punctures and allow the teams to work with the tyres at lower pressures.
In 2021 the new tyre design will be the key to success, but Friday was the last opportunity to test the new design, pending a reduced number of pre-season test days next year. Simply put: Each round of tyres can reveal a certain concept and performance the following year.
But at one point, during the circuit change from Friday to Saturday, Mercedes lost the thread that had sewn together his 2020 title campaign, and when qualifying ran on 2020 tires, the car did not perform as expected.
The surprise is that we looked normal on Friday, said Mercedes chief engineer Andrey Shovlin on Sunday night. We implemented our own tyre programme for 2021 and wanted to focus on that.
If we had fought [for the performance] on Friday, we could have said that we had spent too much time on these tires, but we didn’t and we were very fast. So, to be honest, we were pretty relaxed on the site Friday night, and the surprise was Saturday morning when we went out on the track and were slow.
We haven’t changed much, we know that a soft tire is a tiring tire, sometimes we put it in a good window and sometimes we don’t, but the whole Saturday was a struggle.
To be honest, I think we did well with the second and third car [on the grid] and we felt like we were on pole position.
If Bottas had found 0.025 to beat Red Bull on Saturday it might have been a different story in the race, but when it ended Verstappen had a clean race from pole position and passed turn 1.
The problems Mercedes experienced during qualifying caused further problems in the race and were exacerbated by the period of the safety car on lap 10, which forced the first three drivers to stop in the pits on the same lap, eliminate any strategic deviation from the race and force them to stop on solid tyres for a long time.
It was a race where, if you wanted to win, you had to be in pole position, Shovlin added. During the race we were optimistic because our pace was generally strong, our [small] flat tyre was generally strong, but when it turned around we could barely see that we didn’t have the speed to challenge Red Bull, so we just sat there and finished second and third, and we couldn’t make life any harder for them.
It’s a little surprise that happened during the race weekend. You did a good job and we’ll see what we can do even better. But the big surprise for us is that we looked good on Friday and we were clearly not in qualifying and the race.
Much has been done to address concerns about the reliability of the Mercedes hybrid system during the race, and it is true that the engineers have reduced the load on the MGU-K after a series of failures on customer cars during recent races. However, according to the team’s estimate, the time loss in the lap was less than 0.1 second (only in the race, not in qualifying), so it had little impact on the final result.
Part of the success of Mercedes in recent years has been its ability to learn from its mistakes, and there is no doubt that Sunday’s defeat will be analyzed in detail to find answers.
Basically, we didn’t have the best car today, Shovlin added. We have to see if we can get more out of it, if there is a problem with where we put it in terms of configuration, or if it has something to do with this circuit suitable for Red Bull.
That’s what we don’t understand now, and that’s what’s gonna be on the to-do list so we can get stuck next week or so.
The whole weekend had the feeling that Red Bull had won a bit and for us, if we hadn’t been on pole, we would never have won this race today. We had no difference in pace, so yesterday the car was lost, which was a fierce fight. But looking at today, I think if we didn’t have a car on the pole, we’d be fighting.
Can Red Bull get into the habit of winning?
Fault! The file name is not specified. Max Verstappen received both Red Bull victories in 2020. Mario Rienzi – Formula 1/Formula 1 on Getty Images.
Sunday’s result is the kind of performance Red Bull has been hoping for all season. There was always a feeling that the RB16 was a fast car this year, but the question of how to speed it up was a problem.
However, it looks like the team has finally reached the best place for the whole race weekend on the Yas Marina circuit.
No matter how Mercedes fought in Abu Dhabi, it must also be said that Verstappen looked really dominant. If Bottas or Hamilton had managed to push him harder in the race, he probably would have accelerated his pace and got a reaction.
Alex Albon, who was more sensitive to abuse of the RB16 and fought throughout the year, closed in Hamilton in the final stages, emphasizing Red Bull’s significant advantage, apparently in a race trimmer.
I think we have improved the car a lot and understood the problems, said Christian Horner, Red Bull team manager. I hope this topic comes up next year.
We need a car that works on different circuits, that Mercedes produces very well, and we need to be strong in that next year. We should be on every possible route of the 23. I find today’s performance on a circuit like this in winter very encouraging.
However, Red Bull’s performance in Abu Dhabi was not such a big surprise. There were glimpses of strong performance in the previous four laps, and maybe the team just had to beat Mercedes on the road to see the reality of that performance.
I think that our pace last week in Bahrain was very strong, it is a shame that we lost Max in the third or fourth round, Horner added. He missed the pole by 0.05 seconds [at the Saheehir Grand Prix] and left Bahrain disappointed.
We just turned the car off and made real progress in the last third of the year. We had bad luck in Imola, Turkey didn’t follow our way, the first Bahrain was decent and the second had bad luck.
And then here in Abu Dhabi to be the first team that beats Mercedes in a direct battle on this circuit, because winning in 2013 is a great achievement in itself and gives the whole team enormous energy if we go in a very short winter.
However, there is a very strong caveat to the progress of Red Bull in recent races. In mid-October, Mercedes showed that it had long since stopped developing his car for 2020, which means that Red Bull has a relatively static target.
So, while Red Bull was separating from the division, Mercedes was working on a much larger upgrade, especially to change aerospace regulations for 2021?
It is clear that Mercedes and Red Bull have used different approaches for the transition from 2020 to 2021.
Red Bull continues to develop its 2020 car, knowing that all the defects fixed this year on the track will provide a better platform for next year, while Mercedes – satisfied for obvious reasons with the performance of its 2020 car after 13 victories in 17 races – maintains its wind tunnel developments and its CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) programme at Brackley.
The best Formula 1 car is probably not the one that wins all the races of the season, but the one that starts the year strong enough to draw attention to its predecessor as early as possible.
That does not mean that Red Bull has not paid enough attention to the development of 2021, which is still taking place at the site of Milton Keynes, or that the Mercedes has not provided details on the development of 2021 for this year’s tests, but if you put money on one of these two teams, which will take it one step further during the winter, the Mercedes would be the safe bet.
The only thing I would say, Horner suggested as a counterpoint, is that there is clearly a significant shift in terms of gearbox, chassis and suspension components.
The most important feature of the car is its aerodynamics, which can be adjusted for next year. Our philosophy is that everything we learned this year can still be carried over to next year.
They [Mercedes] are a very strong team, they have great strength and depth and we have seen that they have put some parts in the car and of course we expect them to be very strong next year. But if we can hold on to this momentum, we hope to offer them more difficult times.
Time will tell, but over the last seven years the rest of F1 drivers have learned to underestimate the Mercedes in its danger.
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