Mercedes expects the 2021 season to deliver a close championship battle with Red Bull, but while describing its rivals as “the class act from the test,” the team’s motorsport strategy director James Vowles notes there are no points scored for being strong in testing.
Red Bull set the pace in the three-day test in Bahrain, where Max Verstappen posted the fastest times on the final evening and was over a second clear of Lewis Hamilton. The Mercedes looked a handful and did not close up on Red Bull on softer compound tires, and Vowles (pictured above) admits on testing performance there is a big gap but doesn’t believe it will be replicated throughout the season.
“We are fortunate enough to have a lot of footage available to us, as you are at home as well, and it was pretty evident from that, that the car was handling poorly and conversely the Red Bull looked what we would call planted — it was a very stable car, especially through the last sector of the lap,” Vowles said. “And I think that’s a fair observation — it was visible to the outside and I would say the lap times mirrored that as well.
“For what it’s worth, every season feels close to us — none of them feel particularly easy and straightforward — but where we finished that test, there are a lot of unknowns. No one up and down the paddock will be able to pinpoint exactly where they are, but there are a few trends that have come out.
“I would say Red Bull are ahead on performance, they are the class act from the test, but it is a test, it is not a race and it is one event out of 23. Are we going to have a close season? I would say so. Red Bull are a fierce adversary, they’ve got a strong package and clearly came out of the box very, very quick.
“The result of that is across the season and across different types of track layouts, I am sure you will see us move forwards and backwards relative to them; but I don’t believe we are going into this particularly finding all the performance that is missing or being ahead of them. So, in short: yeah, I think we are going to have a close championship this year.”
Identifying where Mercedes was particularly struggling during testing, trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin says the strong winds seemed to hurt the W12 more than its rivals, masking its true potential.
“The wind made it tricky,” Shovlin said. “When the wind is behind the car you lose a lot of downforce, because effectively the airspeed is reduced. So some corners where the wind was behind, it was prone to doing that; and then also the tires are quite easy to overheat on that circuit and if you start sliding, you tend to lose grip and it gets worse. So, there are a few problems.
“Now, importantly we could see that some of our competitors weren’t struggling in the same way as us, so we need to put quite a focus on understanding why the rear end was a bit weak, how we can get it more stable and predictable and that work is going on now. Hopefully when we get to the race weekend it won’t be so difficult for the drivers, because they were having to work pretty hard to do the lap times that they were doing.”