It’s 3-1 in favor of Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes in the world championship battle with Max Verstappen and Red Bull. That adds up to 14-point lead in the battle for Formula 1’s drivers’ championship, and on paper, suggests the reigning champions have the decisive upper hand.
After years of Mercedes domination, it’s understandable that many have been quick to jump to that conclusion. But the margins have been so fine this season, with qualifying sessions and races swinging on myriad tiny details, that the results could look very different.
In the Bahrain season-opener, Red Bull had a clear performance advantage – comfortably the largest advantage either team has had so far this season. As Mercedes head of trackside engineering Andrew Shovlin put it after the race, “in qualifying we’re just bang on their pace in our best corners and they’re quicker in the others, so we need a faster car. Simple as that”.
Red Bull’s big advantage was in the fast Turn 5/6 sweep and the tricky Turn 9/10 left-hander, which has a tightening approach before launching the cars onto the back straight. The Honda engine in the Red Bull also had a slight ERS advantage thanks to the Mercedes ERS ‘clipping’ (running out of energy to deploy). This added up to an advantage of 0.388s in qualifying.
On Sunday, Hamilton and Mercedes came through to win, but not because of some performance swing that meant it had more pace in race conditions. Instead, by picking an aggressive strategy and undercutting past Verstappen with a 13th lap pitstop, Hamilton gained track position.
But this came at the expense of knowing Verstappen, in a quicker car with what would turn out to be tires that were 11 laps younger, would close in rapidly at the end. Hamilton’s brilliantly measured drive and then intelligent defense meant Verstappen couldn’t get past – at least, not without violating track limits and having to give the position back.
Bahrain therefore has to go down as a reversal of the form book, the result of an aggressive strategy from Mercedes and a well-executed drive from Hamilton. But the performance trends started to get muddier next time out at Imola.
There, Verstappen could and arguably should have been on pole position rather than third on the grid behind polesitter Hamilton and Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez. Hamilton’s pole position was against the run of play, not least because of the tire warm-up problems Mercedes suffered that resulted in Valtteri Bottas only managing eighth-fastest time in Q3.
Verstappen’s sector times in qualifying showed that pole position was possible, but what he described as “odd” mistakes added up to a disappointing performance. He made up for it in the race though, dragging past Perez at the start and having the inside line for the Tamburello Chicane, forcing Hamilton to rattle across the kerbs and damage the footplate of his front wing after optimistically attempting to contest the position.
From there, Verstappen won with Hamilton recovering to second place only thanks to the reprieve created by the safety car then red flag triggered by George Russell spinning into Bottas. Just prior to that accident, Hamilton had dropped off the lead lap after misjudging how wet the track was on the inside line at Tosa while lapping Russell, sliding into the gravel and damaging his front wing.
With Verstappen serenely marching to victory, was this therefore another weekend of Red Bull supremacy? Not quite, for once Hamilton’s intermediates were up to temperature in the first stint he had carved into Verstappen’s advantage. Who knows what would have happened without his mistake. What’s more, the rain before the start transformed the race, meaning you could argue Hamilton might have won easily with a normal dry launch. Equally, had Verstappen been on pole, as he should have been, then it could have been the same story for him.
This is where the ifs and buts start to creep in. It’s always tempting to work backwards from the race result and argue that the result was preordained, but as last year’s double-header events at the Red Bull Ring and Silverstone showed, sometimes changes either in conditions or key decisions can be transformative. Realistically, Bahrain and Imola could both have produced wins for either Hamilton or Verstappen.
In Portugal, Verstappen repeated his Imola Saturday failure. He set a time good enough for pole position on the first run in Q3 in the best of the conditions, but it was deleted – rightly – as he exceeded track limits at the exit of Turn 4. This was the result of correcting a brief rear-end snap in the exit phase, and therefore didn’t cost him time.
Although Hamilton won after having passed both Verstappen and Bottas in the race, which was held in gusty conditions, qualifying again could have transformed the outcome. After all, Hamilton got ahead of Verstappen when the Red Bull driver had a moment trying to hang on in DRS range of Bottas, a position he wouldn’t have been in had he been leading from the front after taking pole position.
You could draw the conclusion that Mercedes had a slender performance advantage on race day in Portugal, and perhaps it did, but more important was the fact it was a slightly more generous on its tires as well as being more benign in the tricky conditions. So while Mercedes did appear the slightly better car in the race as it was, how much of that was a consequence of conditions?
The most recent race in Spain was perhaps a little more clear-cut. Things were close in qualifying, with Hamilton ahead of Verstappen by just 0.036s, and given the Red Bull driver lost time off Turn 7/8 and through the fast Campsa right-hander, that could have gone the other way. But that made little difference given that Verstappen took the lead with a forceful move at Turn 1 anyway.
But he couldn’t hold onto it, and it wasn’t quite as simple as Mercedes winning on strategy. Yes, the decision to run a two-stopper by Mercedes was central to the way the race played out, but it worked because once the temperature was in the tires, the W12 did appear to be the faster car. That, combined with the pace offset of fresher rubber, allowed Hamilton to catch and pass Verstappen. Perhaps most revealing of the pace, however, was the fact that Hamilton could sit in Verstappen’s turbulent air in the first stint. But Barcelona is a track very well-suited to the Mercedes, and what happens there might not translate consistently to other tracks.
The broad picture painted of the high-rake Red Bull versus the low-rake Mercedes is a tantalizing match up. The Red Bull is a little more pointy, with a strong front end and potentially more aero load available, but it’s also more demanding on the rear tires and generally works well across a wide range of corners. The Mercedes seems a little more specific in terms of exactly what corners it thrives in, but when it’s good, it’s very good, and is gentler on its tires. That makes it a threat in tire-limited races, even on the occasions when Red Bull is faster over a lap. The Red Bull might, on average, prove to be the fractionally quicker car, but perhaps the Mercedes is the more raceable.
But with just four race weekends in the history books, it’s risky to draw definitive conclusions about any performance trend. Although Mercedes certainly improved from where it was in testing, the performance swings are well within the scope of the circuit characteristics. And tempting as it is to conclude Spain indicates Mercedes has moved ahead, Monaco is expected to be Red Bull territory – provided, of course, Verstappen and the team don’t drop the ball.
A slow speed circuit – and it’s worth noting Red Bull excelled in the final sector in Spain that is a vague indicator of Monaco form – where tire management shouldn’t be a big factor will work well for the RB16B. Even Perez, who has struggled with the car, has mentioned his hopes of being in the mix for victory. If Red Bull prevails there, then the impression will be given that it is now back ahead.
The reality is, neither team is ahead based on what we’ve seen so far. Mercedes is in literal terms thanks to its three wins, but the swings are so small, the different performance demands of the tracks and the conditions so critical, that realistically we could have ended up with the results reversed over the early races of the season. And with Hamilton and Verstappen crossing swords on track in all four races, many of these key moments when the initiative swings one way or the other are down to what the drivers do on track.
While the results on paper might indicate it’s the same old Mercedes domination, the reality on track could not be more different. If the rest of the season plays out in a similar way, the team and driver that prevails will be decided by countless tiny swings and decisions, mistakes, successes, judgement good and bad in the critical moments. External factors like weather conditions will also contribute, and while the number two drivers – Perez and Bottas – have not yet had a sustained impact on the battle at the front, there will be days when their presence will prove crucial. After all, had Perez been in Hamilton’s pitstop window in Spain, Mercedes might have had to think again about its strategy.
That’s why this is shaping up to be the best world championship fight we’ve had the privilege of seeing for a very long time. It’s all about tiny differences, with the potential of this fight going all the way down to the wire. It’s all you could ask for in a battle for the title.
To write it off as Mercedes dominating as usual is to disregard the endlessly fascinating nuance of exactly why what has happened has happened. If Mercedes and Hamilton do stay ahead this season, it will have been a harder-fought title victory than any of their previous together.