It was only a matter of time before the pressure of a close championship battle started to take its toll on the teams involved, but round four of a 23-race season feels pretty early for the first cracks to be appearing.
Over the first few months, the dynamic has evolved in stages. The first part involved Red Bull and Mercedes both saying that the other was the favorite heading into the new season. Then the focus became more about each team highlighting the deficiencies of their own cars and explaining why they were still not at their full potential.
After Portugal is when it really started to evolve. Lewis Hamilton began putting a spotlight on the errors being made on the Red Bull side of the fight – by both the team and Max Verstappen – that he said were helping Mercedes.
“Definitely the first test didn’t look great and at the first race we were still up there, but you could see the deficit from us to the Red Bulls,” he said last week. “But I think in terms of overall output through the weekend, we’ve managed to do a better job.
“We really can’t continue to rely on mistakes from others, we’ve got to get our heads down and continue to work. We’ve got a good package, but it does have its weak areas.
“In terms of my side, I’m really happy with the output. Naturally you’re always trying to raise the bar, make as few mistakes as possible, They’ve been there but I’m grateful for them, as they make you stronger when you learn from them.”
Of course, any driver is always going to want to talk up their rival’s abilities or the car they have beneath them, because if that driver then beats that rival, they’re overachieving by comparison.
But if Hamilton was inadvertently praising himself by pointing to Verstappen’s missed opportunities – specifically strategy and running wide when overtaking in Bahrain, and exceeding track limits in Portimao – there wasn’t so much that was inadvertent about his post-race comments in Spain when he discussed their fight into Turn 1 at the start.
“As we went into Turn 1, I made sure I gave as much space as I could to Max,” he said. “In my mind it’s always a marathon not a sprint, so I’m thinking of the long game, and sure you could be a little more aggressive, do I need to? I’m in the position I’m in because I don’t get too aggressive when I don’t need to be.”
Self-praise time. And rightly earned, seeing as Hamilton has won three of the first four races. But it was a remark that tells Verstappen that he hasn’t got the seven-time world champion rattled.
In amongst it all, Hamilton was also questioning the legality of the Red Bull, telling TV crews after qualifying that part of its gains in a straight line is down to a “bendy wing” that it was running in Spain. It ensured it became a storyline after the race weekend.
“I mean, of course the cars are scrutineered thoroughly and there’s pull back tests, there’s all kinds of different tests it has to pass,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said in response. “The FIA are completely happy with the car, that it has passed all of those tests that are pretty stringent, so I was surprised to see his comments on that, but it’s something that Toto (Wolff) has mentioned to me previously. I doubt it was Lewis’s opinion, so probably came from elsewhere.”
Wherever it came from, the FIA took steps soon afterwards in response, telling teams on Tuesday afternoon that it would be carrying out more stringent static tests to ensure no such pieces of bodywork class as movable aerodynamic devices.
But there was something else Horner said in the same debrief that caught the eye, and it carries a sense of deja vu. Just last week I was talking to Sergio Perez about why he feels his experience will help him be successful at Red Bull, but the only experience the team has of the current situation with its drivers relates to the likes of Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon.
In consecutive races, Perez has slipped into the all-too-regular spot for the second Red Bull car, behind the leading midfield runners and unable to clear them quickly. In Portugal he got up to fourth but was not in the fight at the front, but in Spain he was limited to fifth at the finish and was not able to be a factor in the race for the win.
That allowed Mercedes the luxury of going for the two-stop strategy it did with Hamilton, because the worst-case scenario was that he would end up back behind Verstappen and unable to pass. If there had been a second Red Bull to consider, perhaps Mercedes wouldn’t have taken the risk, which is why Horner said his team “desperately” needs Perez to be in the fight.
That’s a line we’ve heard before with both Gasly and Albon. In fact, it was the now often-cited Hungarian Grand Prix in 2019 – where Hamilton pulled off a very similar strategy to the one seen in Spain in order to beat Verstappen, who led the majority of the race – that proved to be the final nail in Gasly’s Red Bull coffin, as he was replaced by Albon just a few days later.
Clearly, Perez is nowhere near in the same position. He’s only been there for four races, and has shown some impressive pace that suggests he can very much do the job Red Bull want him to, but when the public comments of support start to include words such as “desperately”, hints of frustration are starting to creep in. And that’s because his role is crucial in Red Bull being a proper threat to Mercedes this year.
When everyone’s being nice to each other, something seems to be missing from the battle. When there are signs of needle on both sides, it tells you they’re feeling the pressure. There’s still 19 races to go, and on recent evidence, that pressure is only going to grow.