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Opinion

Was F1's testing a false dawn?

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Roar Guru
18th March, 2021
6

Formula One pre-season testing for 2021 has been completed and as always, there’s great intrigue at the shape of the pecking order ahead of the new season.

This is a season that sees teams largely carry over their cars from last year.

Limited to only three days of testing, there were plenty of kilometres being clocked up at the Sakhir circuit in Bahrain as teams got to grips with the modified aero regulations – brought in to slow down the old cars so Pirelli can continue to use an older spec of tyre.

Many expect the run of dominance from seven-time constructor champions in Mercedes to continue in 2021, however, the question on everyone’s minds after a difficult period of testing for the silver juggernauts is whether this is the most vulnerable they’ve been since 2014.

The world champions made the headlines early on the first day of testing as a gearbox gremlin curtailed any morning running for Valtteri Bottas and the team not completing work on the W12 until later that day. In the time that Bottas did get some time on the track, he remarked that the car was “quite snappy and unforgiving.”

A sentiment that his teammate and seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton also echoed, having had a rare, spectacular spin while on the soft tyres trying to record low-fuel laps. In total, Mercedes only clocked up 304 laps, which was the fewest of any team during this pre-season and with Hamilton uncomfortable in the car, is this the most telling sign there is of them being behind the eight-ball?

By contrast, Red Bull had an unusually strong pre-season test, finishing the three days as the fastest thanks to Max Verstappen’s record 1:28.960 lap time on the final day. The former world champions also completed 369 laps and both Verstappen and new recruit Sergio Perez were left buoyant by the more responsive RB16B.

Not that we’re to read much into lap times during testing, as they’re never fully representative of where everyone is, though the general demeanour of the Red Bull camp was of a team that is primed to take the fight to Mercedes.

Max Verstappen in Abu Dhabi

(Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

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Previously in the turbo-hybrid era, Red Bull have always started a new season playing catching up – which drastically hurt their prospects at challenging for the world championship.

Having addressed the skittish nature of the rear-end of the RB16B’s predecessor and also brought forward major upgrades in their Honda power unit, in what is the Japanese manufacturer’s final season in Formula One – there is cause for optimism.

This could all be a false dawn and the status quo may restore itself in time for the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix next weekend. Mercedes have a track record of addressing any shortcomings and threats to their supremacy, and this glitch might be no different.

There’s no doubt if the world champions are in trouble within the confines of the limited developments allowed in 2021 and under the new US$145 million performance budget cap that Mercedes won’t be able make up the deficit and fight for an eighth straight world championship.

If anything, Red Bull have shown that if they’re to be in this year’s title fight, that they’ll be in it from the get-go. And for that reason, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the early season advantage lies within the Honda-powered Milton Keynes team.

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