The confirmation of the 2020 Formula 1 calendar, or the first eight races in Europe at least, led to suggestions it could be advantage Red Bull in the early stages of the world championship fight. Given, Max Verstappen has won the last two grands prix at the Red Bull Ring, which hosts the first two races, as well as taking pole position and coming within five laps of winning at the Hungaroring, which hosts race three, in 2019.
The Red Bull Ring is certainly a track Red Bull enjoys – and why wouldn’t it? It’s Red Bull supremo Dietrich Mateschitz’s circuit, and he has business interests all over the surrounding areas, so it is the definition of the home race even for a team that is based in the UK. But while it is a Red Bull track in one way, it’s not actually one that overtly favors its historical car characteristics.
The Hungaroring is a circuit that is well-suited to the DNA that courses through the Red Bull, although curiously it has only actually won there twice – with Mark Webber in 2010, and Daniel Ricciardo four years later.
But history is a limited indicator of future form. Yes, the 2020 cars are very much an evolution of their predecessors so there will characteristics that carry over directly, while in the longer-term, the performance profile of each team’s car does reflect their mindset, methodology and culture. But race wins are not always the product of performance, and the history in this case is a little misleading.
Mercedes technical director James Allison was asked about this on a recent episode of the F1 Nation podcast.
“There’s no doubt that Max is going to be a formidable opponent for us this year,” said Allison. “Ferrari did show glimpses of some form in pre-season testing, so we would imagine that Max will again be strong in Austria because Red Bull are always super pumped-up there, and they’ve got a bit of a track record.
“But equally… our campaign in Austria last year was hampered by our own mistakes on the cooling side, which meant that we were chugging round way off the actual pace of the car. And the year before, we were hampered by unreliability and rather clumsy moves around the safety car.
“So we’re all looking forward to getting to Austria and maybe showing a bit more of what we’re capable of than the slight underperformance that we’ve put in in the previous two seasons. And Hungary, well I think it will be a ding-dong. But it was a good result for us there last year.”
Allison has characterized the three case study races in question well. In Austria 2018, at the start of lap 13 Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas ran first and second for Mercedes after having locked out the front row. But Bottas suffered a hydraulic failure, and despite his best efforts to park in a safe spot, brought out the safety car. Mercedes dithered, failing to call Hamilton in and compromising his strategy, and handing the initiative to Red Bull. For good measure, Hamilton then retired to make this one of only two double-DNFs for Mercedes in the 1.6-litre V6 turbo hybrid era.
The cooling error Allison refers to in 2019 dates back to the design phase of the car where a data-input error, combined with failsafe systems not picking up the error, led to the Mercedes W10’s cooling potential being lower than needed. In Austria, it was around 43 degrees Fahrenheit too hot and Hamilton and Bottas really did have to, as Allison suggests, chug round. This left Verstappen to charge to victory after a late and controversial pass on Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari.
Red Bull and Verstappen certainly won those two races, but it required the assistance of the faster Mercedes team to do so. Cast your mind back further, and Mercedes won the previous four races at the Red Bull Ring. While it’s a circuit that invites errors and can create unusual circumstances – something that is encouraging for the opposition – history suggests there’s no reason why Mercedes can’t have the fastest car there. After all, the cooling blunder will not be repeated.
The Hungaroring is a more interesting case, but even last year’s race weekend was a little misleading. Verstappen did take pole position, but this was the race after Mercedes introduced an upgrade package that made it a little harder to keep the rear tires alive at their peak over a qualifying lap. This held back both drivers in qualifying, while Verstappen and Red Bull got the most from their package.
In the race, Mercedes had the speed and Hamilton pressured Verstappen until the team pulled off the perfect strategy move by bringing him in for a second stop. The combination of the grip advantage and the pace of the car meant Verstappen was a sitting duck late on. There was no way for Red Bull to have covered that second pitstop gambit, but it would have found that race far easier to win had it genuinely had a pace advantage in the race, which it didn’t.
None of this means Red Bull hasn’t got a chance. While pre-season testing (for those who can remember back that far) suggested Mercedes holds all the aces, Red Bull did look fast in fits and starts. But how big a threat it poses in Austria and Hungary will depend entirely on the underlying performance of the car. If it’s a better car than the Mercedes, then it certainly can win those races. If it’s at a similar level to the Mercedes, perhaps the Hungaroring’s configuration will help it, but there’s no reason to expect Red Bull to storm to three consecutive victories if the Mercedes is fundamentally the quickest car overall.
If we look a little further down the calendar, the case for the Red Bull advantage further loses integrity. Silverstone is a Mercedes track, one where it has dominated since 2014. Only once, when Hamilton started on pole position, lost the lead to Sebastian Vettel off the line and then was punted into a spin by Kimi Raikkonen, has Mercedes failed to win. So that’s two races on Mercedes territory. Then comes Barcelona, where Mercedes had its biggest pace advantage of all in relative terms last year.