Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, Sochi Autodrom, 2020

Analysis: Mercedes’ 2020 dominance and their chances of being caught this year

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Mercedes ran rampant throughout 2020 as their under-performing rivals Ferrari and Red Bull let them off the hook.

The black cars could – and perhaps should – have won every race last year. They came remarkably close to taking pole position at every event. Aside from the freak circumstances at Istanbul, only at the season finale were they beaten to the quickest lap time in qualifying, and even then it was by a mere 25 thousandths of a second.

Until last year, Mercedes’ rivals had steadily closed the gap to them during the V6 hybrid turbo era. The 2017 to 2019 seasons were far more competitive than the three which went before.

So can we expect more of the same Mercedes dominance in the 2021 F1 season? Or does the fact Red Bull successfully chipped away at their lead throughout last year give cause for optimism that the coming championship will be about more than just the two guys in the W12s?

How dominant were Mercedes throughout 2020?

The gap above shows how far each team was behind Mercedes at each race in relative (percentage) terms across all sessions. Clearly, Mercedes held the upper hand for much of the year. But race-by-race variations due to conditions, differences in tracks and so on makes it hard to get an overall impression.

Freak conditions at Istanbul yielded little useful data
What the graph above does highlight, however, is how extraordinarily unusual the Turkish Grand Prix was. We haven’t seen race conditions like this for many years, and as a result its value to understanding the season is doubtful.

It was clear during Friday practice the resurfaced track offered very little grip. The rain which fell over the following day created wildly varying grip levels. As the amount of water on the track changed, and teams switched between different tyre compounds, the outcome was something of a lottery.

The quickest lap times of the weekend were seen in Friday’s dry practice, and these too varied so far from the norm they have been discounted here as unrepresentative.

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Taking the average gaps between the teams from race to race reveals a clearer picture of how each team compared to season-long pace-setters Mercedes:

NB. 2020 data excludes Turkish Grand Prix

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Hungaroring, 2020
Red Bull were 1.4s off Mercedes in Hungary
At the beginning of the year Mercedes were, on average, 1% quicker around a given lap than any of their rivals. This prompted them to take a decision which will have significant ramifications for the season ahead: They held off developments on their 2020 car, and prioritised work on their new chassis. Comparatively few updates arrived for the W11 over the rest of the season.

We won’t know until the start of this season how great a benefit Mercedes will reap from those tactics. Clearly it cost them little in terms of performance last year, though Red Bull steadily closed the gap to them as the season went on. That progress culminated in a pole-to-flag victory for Red Bull at the season finale, amid whispers Mercedes were more than usually compromised that weekend as they were carrying development parts for 2021.

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Ferrari, Mercedes’ closest rival on pure performance in 2019, made a huge step backwards at the beginning of 2020. This was largely attributed to changes to their power unit, which arose due to new regulations prompted by a controversial private settlement between the team and the FIA.

Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, Sochi Autodrom, 2020
At Sochi, Ferrari were almost two seconds off Mercedes
Ferrari’s aerodynamic platform was also found wanting, though how far this was a result of them not having the expected power output and therefore being unable to tolerate as much drag is a matter of some debate. They made some gains over the second half of the season, however, and the Maranello concern is hopeful their 2021 power unit will at least no longer be the slowest in F1, and they will be able to lead the midfield charge.

Racing Point – which has become Aston Martin this year – is a curious case. They made great strides over the winter having switched to an entirely different aerodynamic philosophy, inspired by that of Mercedes. However they made little progress over the course of the season, and became mired in an increasingly fierce midfield contest. Even AlphaTauri, who were over 1% slower than Racing Point at the start of the year, ended the season with a slightly quicker car on average.

Nonetheless, with Lawrence Stroll’s operation revitalising the team, 2020-spec Mercedes hardware available for this year, greater familiarity with the design philosophy and the arrival of four-times champion Sebastian Vettel, there’s great scope for progress at the rebranded team.

On average, Mercedes were 0.67% faster than their closest rival over the course of 2020. That compares closely with the peak of their dominance at the beginning of the V6 hybrid turbo era.

How much greater might their 2020 advantage have been had they kept up a normal development rate? And how much do they have up their sleeves for 2021?

They will be constrained by the ‘tokens’ system which limits how far teams can change their chassis for this final year under the current aerodynamic regulations. But, of course, the same goes for all their rivals as well.

Lance Stroll, Racing Point, Circuit de Catalunya, 2020
Racing Point made the biggest step last winter
The remaining unknown is what progress teams will make during the off-season. Here it’s useful to recall what happened last year, not in the expectation that history will repeat itself, but as a guide. The data above shows which teams made the biggest gains from the final five races of 2019 to the first five of last season.

During the last off-season all the Mercedes-powered teams made gains, as did Renault. Ferrari made the biggest step back by far, and their power unit woes dragged their customers back too.

But while Ferrari’s huge step backwards made headlines at the beginning of last year, Red Bull’s faltering start to 2020 drew less attention. Partly because it has become somewhat typical of the team in recent years. Will that change in 2021?

When the new season begins it’s hard to imagine a scenario other than Mercedes having the fastest car in F1 for the eighth year in a row. The competition tightened up over the course of last year, but Mercedes’ rivals will be wondering if the world champions are right now winning the invisible off-season war again.

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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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55 comments on “Analysis: Mercedes’ 2020 dominance and their chances of being caught this year”

  1. Ferrari () made a huge step backwards at the beginning of 2020. This was largely attributed to changes to their power unit, which arose due to new regulations

    I’m not aware that there were any PU performance related regulation changes, unless we can’t call a spade a spade anymore.

    1. I guess we are talking about a ‘clarification’ of the PU regulations for Ferrari

    2. @coldfly They changed the way they monitor fuel flow by specifying that another sensor must be installed between the fuel tank and combustion engine. I guess that can technically be described as a ‘new regulation’, even though only Ferrari had to make any design changes to accommodate this and we all know the reason it was introduced.

      1. That’s why I included ‘performance related’; the regulation didn’t change the maximum fuel flow.

        It’s not like when the police is not checking that it’s suddenly legal to speed. It only makes it impossible to convict you.

        1. @coldfly technically, there was also the reduction in the volume of fuel which could be stored outside of the tank (from 2 litres to 250ml), and there was also a slight change to the torque mapping for the starts.

          As you note, the main reason for Ferrari’s changes will be somewhat different, but technically you could argue the torque mapping for the start would be a “performance related” change, in as much as it would alter the starting procedure for the drivers.

          1. and there was also a slight change to the torque mapping for the starts.

            Thanks anon, I always appreciate your insightful comments.
            I did not know about the rule changes regarding torque mapping. Maybe I was too quick with my judgment ;)

      1. Thanks @KeithCollantine,
        I recall the article and getting bit smarter after reading it ;)

    3. Quite 😁🤭🤬

  2. When the new season begins it’s hard to imagine a scenario other than Mercedes having the fastest car in F1 for the eighth year in a row.

    Well, thanks for the honest assessment. It’s actually refreshing not hearing the hype being bought into, it usually revolves around Red Bull’s “we’re catching up” quotes and the data does back it up. I’m always a fan of keeping expectations low and being pleasantly surprised if they’re exceeded.

    Meanwhile, how sad is that average lap time deficit graph for Renault? By that measure they should have been a comfortable third, goes to show important consistency is. You can have a decent car, but they both need to finish and you need the strategy to back it up.

    1. Comfortable fourth (Mercedes along the bottom axis is almost invisible). Definitely shows that Renault and Force India underperformed and McLaren overperformed. I don’t think any of those teams were substantially (over the course of the season) better or worse strategically, but Renault clearly suffered from Ocon taking nearly all season to come up to speed, while I think Force India were the unluckiest of the three teams and suffered from losing both drivers to COVID (and Stroll’s late season slump).

  3. MP4-27 might’ve been quicker on average than RB6 and F2012, but unreliable, which cost Mclaren against their closest rivals that season.
    This year, I expect a similar pecking order to last year considering carryover cars, but 2022 is more of an unknown.

  4. I don’t think any other team is likely to overtake mercedes this year, there are no big changes and they are so far ahead already

    This may be the last year of mercedes having the fastest car however. 2021 is the last year when their car can be developed with a bigger budget than their rivals (except Ferrari).
    2022 could give us a new order.

    1. 2021 is the last year when their car can be developed with a bigger budget than their rivals

      Unless Mercedes is so far ahead and repeats what it did in 2029: stop in season development and focus early in next year’s car.

      1. I remember a little story that Alonso requested that alpine start work on 2022 as soon as they can.
        It’s possible some teams are already focusing on next year.

        1. @napierrailton to some extent, Renault was already fairly heavily focussed on 2022 already, as are Ferrari – both of those teams have already gone through the chassis homologation crash tests in late 2020 – so they were largely already doing what Alonso has been pushing for.

      2. and repeats what it did in 2029

        driving to Mars on one petrol tank?

        1. Regrettably, the supply shuttle with the tankful of petrol for the return journey has yet to arrive…

    2. @napierrailton The budget cap is in effect as of this year (at 145m USD), so how could Mercedes develop with a bigger budget than their rivals bar Ferrari?

      1. @jerejj
        This years cars have been largely build and developed already last season.

        We won’t see the budget cap have any real affect until 2022.

        1. @kingshark Yes, but whatever development takes place this year (either for this year or next) happens under the budget cap, and of course, applies to every team equally.

  5. As we learned from Mercedes staff itself, as soon as the level of their dominance had been revealed only after a couple of races into the 2020 season, they quickly shifted their resources on developing their 2021 car. Meanwhile quite demoralizing for the rest of the field to catch up to a construction that doesn’t receive updates and still ends up on top, the limited modification possibilites on 2020 cars to produce a 2021 challenger, and Red Bull’s late-season speed might indicate that they could be in a better position to close the gap to Mercedes than in previous season-starts, but they’ll still have a mountain to climb. I wouldn’t expect more variation in the order than between any two races in 2020, but certain tracks that weren’t featured in last years’ calendar, might produce smaller (or as well larger) margins.

    1. @andrewt Fair comment. Just to add though, I’m not convinced that Mercedes has gotten such a big jump in developing this year’s car, particularly vs RBR. Why? Simply because if Mercedes themselves were actually announcing they were stopping development of the 2020 car and switching over to this year’s, then they were literally tipping their hand to everyone. Even without them saying it, I suppose teams would have assumed it or figured it out anyway. At least thought to themselves it would be a possibility that they’d do that.

      Anywho, this just to say if it was obvious to the whole world that Mercedes were going to be untouchable last year, very early on in the season, it would have been obvious for RBR to see as well that they weren’t going to touch Mercedes for the titles, nor was anyone going to touch them for second in the WCC.

      I just think teams, particularly the top ones, can walk and chew gum at the same time, and I doubt RBR were wasting too much time and energy chasing Mercedes last year for the titles, and would have been developing both the 2020 and 2021 car last year in such a way that they will have not been caught out by Mercedes switching to this year’s car as of early days last year.

      Do we know for a fact that RBR won the last race because Mercedes, compromising, had 2021 components on their car for R&D purposes, and because RBR had finally gotten their 2020 car better? Perhaps RBR had some 2021 ideas going on too. Or at least have been developing out of the 2020 car the problems it had and have been evolving those into the 2021 car at the same time.

      Bottom line for me I’m not saying Mercedes won’t dominate this year, but I don’t believe RBR has been caught out in the development race with Mercedes over last year and this, and I think much will come down to how well Honda will have progressed with their PU in terms of RBR’s ability to close the gap. I see nothing that would have prevented RBR from putting as much time and energy into this year’s car as Mercedes did.

      1. @robbie Agreed, especially about the case of a curiously slower Mercedes pair at Abu Dhabi. A lot of factors could have contributed to that, difference is setups, different stage of lifecycles of the equipment, developed parts on the Red Bull, experimental parts on the Mercedes, a physically exhausted Lewis Hamilton, a mentally exhausted Valtteri Bottas, a nothing-to-lose and everything-to-gain attutide of Max Verstappen, less than 100% motivation at Mercedes after clinching both titles way earlier, a more conservative and cautious approach by the race-strategy crew of Mercedes after the pit-fiasco at Sakhir, and the list could be continued. I just hope the difference seen has more to do with Red Bull doing something better, rather than Mercedes not doing it on their usual level.

      2. @robbie I agree that it’s unlikely that RBR would get caught behind in terms of developing their next years car.

        Unfortunately though, they seem to have repeatedly brought an under performing car to the start of the season for the last several years and don’t really have it sorted until about mid season.

        Whilst we can hope that this season they might get it right, and given there’s not a lot that can be changed there’s a good chance, if they repeat themselves again, they’re just making it too hard for themselves to catch up.

        I’m really hoping that this year will be different, but I’m not super confident.

  6. I just wanted to say, please, keep up doing “Five race average time deficit” graph. I’m really into following F1 teams development as well as relative pace of them, and I have to say, this is the most reliable and clear way to analize development race in F1 season I have ever seen, yet it seems to be based on very simple principle. Wish someone would come up with this years ago, to compare development race in different F1 seasons. Thankfully, you did and I really really hope this will stick for at least next few years.

    1. Love to know how dominant Ferrari glory years

    2. Thanks very much Oskar!

  7. The big problem with Keith’s pre-20 analysis, is that apart from 2010, it pertains to 1 lap quali pace only. And if the driver is a good qualifier, it might inflate the cars statistics. For instance, Hamilton has been cited as the best qualifier since Senna, so how do we know McLaren’s quick quali pace in 2012 was more down to him, especially when one considers Vettel’s quali gap to Webber in 2012 was the smallest since Vettel and Webber paired?

    AMuS looked at both quali and race pace and found Ferrari was the quickest overall 2018 car.

    1. Ham is a great qualifier, but Bottas was not bad either, so the car is obviously the main parameter here.

      1. considering Bottas trashed Daniel Ricciardo in qualifying in the lower formulae, considering he trounced his more experienced teammates at Williams it’s clear Bottas is a good qualifier.

    2. Hamilton beat Rosberg 42-36 in qualifying during their time at Mercedes.

      A nearly 44 year old Schumacher went 10-10 against Rosberg in 2012.

      Russell jumped into Hamilton’s car and qualified at virtually the same time despite the car not being set up for him and little running time.

      1. Well, Dean, but when we look at Russel’s qualifying record, it is obvious that he is an outstanding qualifyer too, though.

  8. Given the multitude of changes for next season (2022) I doubt any team is going to be doing any meaningful development throughout the year so whoever starts ahead is likely to stay there.

    In theory Mercedes has the advantage here given they dedicated almost all of last season towards developing the ’21 car, but they’ve also got to (re)implement conventional front suspension and stand to lose more than any other team in that regard.

    I expect they will be ahead nonetheless and probably quite comfortably too. 2022 can’t come quick enough, I just hope the racing’s better too!

  9. can’t imagine the order changing at all. Every team will be focussing on 2022. Unless 1 team really focuses on 2021 just to grab the one off opportunity, whilst sacrificing R&D for 2022…

  10. Please learn not to use averages in statistical analysis. A 1.2 gap in Hungary due to Hamilton’s wet weather driving skills (or the lack thereof in the rest of the field) is a massive shift for the average. Use median values instead.

    Plus pretending that the best quali lap is just the car is also rather nonsensical. Hamilton is clearly one of the best at this and again that skews the average.

    1. That’s why Bottas took some poles of him of course….

      1. In a team where both drivers get a car that works for them and the resources and attention to set it up properly and the newest parts at the same time, then yes it happens that both drivers get poles.

        It’s not just the car. How many times did Verstappen have the fastest car in Monaco, Mexico, Singapore, Malaysia etc. Or last season Turkey, Hungary and Sakhir. When he has the fastest car he chokes and bins it. It’s easy when he just cruises to P3, but when he actually has a chance to do well … he doesn’t.

    2. A 1.2 gap in Hungary due to Hamilton’s wet weather driving skills

      He’s good, but did not know that his ‘wet weather driving skills’ you’re drooling about, could make him faster on a dry track in quali :P

      Maybe, just maybe, it was the car.
      This would better explain why Bottas was just 0.1s behind.

      1. @coldfly Yeah hilarious, it was Styria. Hungary was where Verstappen utterly failed yo set up his car. Same result.

    3. @f1osaurus

      A 1.2 gap in Hungary due to Hamilton’s wet weather driving skills

      Hungary qualifying was dry…

      1. @keithcollantine True, Hungary was where Verstappen utterly failed to set up his car. Same result. Either way, only noobs use averages and especially averages without removing outliers.

        1. Either way, only noobs use averages and especially averages without removing outliers.

          Don’t feel ashamed about not understanding statistics. Averages are perfectly fine when using fastest time from many instances (hence eliminating outliers). Median would only be more useful when working on single data points with outliers (e.g. ‘average’ salary, where an extreme high earner can distort the mean average).

    4. @f1osaurus

      When you take the median the gap is still 0.5, it hardly makes a difference (and that’s including the Turkish GP). So yeah, Mercedes was dominant in every single way you put it.

  11. Roll on 2022. Hopefully this 3 pointed borefest will be over.

  12. All this speculative discussion proves nothing. What was and what will be are still the same. Just wishful thinking. That’s all. Nobody really knows what will happen. There is little to suggest real knowledge exists. Not until race day 2021. It’s that simple

  13. So who thinks that Mercedes wanted to do a switch in 2015 : Hamilton for Alonso?

    1. No one sane.

  14. What’s your opinion on the following:
    1) Mercedes offered a switch in 2015 to Ferrari, switch of drivers: Hamilton for Alonso”. Ferrari rejected the switch.
    2) Ferrari was offering Alonso, the first year he returned to Renault after McLaren failure.
    3) Alonso was a “rookie” at McLaren because he was “discovering” the “GP2 level tyres” Bridgestone, and that made him change dramatically his driving style. So he was a rookie and struggling with that bad level tyres.

  15. Alonso recently gave an interview to spanish press in which he discuss some matters of his f1 career.
    1) They comment him people have the view that Hamilton beat him as a rookie when they both shared McLaren outfit. He answered to that claim is that he was a “rookie” too testing new tyres (Gp2 level tyres), and that he had to change his driving style dramatically and made him struggle in all pre season test, and in the beginning of the year. And that he got the same points as Hamilton at the end of the year, and he lost the championship by 1 point.
    2) He changed team from McLaren to Renault because the atmosphere at McLaren was pretty bad and unhealthy and 1 year more will have been disastrous, and he also comments that change was very good because he made him able to sign for Ferrari and drive for the best team, in an unique experience.
    3) Mercedes offered Ferrari a switch of drivers in 2015. Hamilton for Alonso, but Ferrari rejected because they preffered Alonso to Hamilton.

    Well my opinion on that subjects:
    1) Hamilton was a rookie and in fact hadn’t driven in some of the circuits they race that year, he didn’t know a f1 car and he didn’t know some of the circuits and he had to learn too. And like it was confirmed he began the year like the second driver of the team, but at the middle of the year, McLaren changed this to equal status, because they were level on points the two drivers. So they gave him the same options to win the championship as Alonso, and he was better than him, specially in the end of the year, when he began to win more races, and Alonso was out of his mental state, and creating a bad atmosphere, and furthermore he blow up Hamilton win in the last race by forcing him out of the track in a dirty manouver. And also Alonso never had chances to win the championship after he made a tremendous mistake in the wet Japan race, which blew up all his championship chances. From that point, he only wanted that Hamilton wasn’t the winner of that championship.

    2) He always commented to spanish press and to everybody that winning with Ferrari was pretty easy, and that will have never merit to win on that team. And also he always dreamed to win with McLaren, he always was his favourite team because his idol Senna drove with that team. So another inconsistent opinion of Alonso, like always one time says one thing, the next time the opposite.

    3) This Alonso claim looks like another ficticious, imaginary, irreal claim. Like the time he said: “Redbull offered me a contract 4 times, I rejected all of them”. Horner quickly put him on his place, telling him to stop telling lies.
    How is going Mercedes to offer a switch, when Mercedes doesn’t forget the 100 million dollar scandal he created at McLaren (Totto’s words). And also how is going Ferrari to reject a switch to Hamilton (the better driver of the 2), if they offer him Hamilton, Ferrari will not doubt accept, because Alonso was creating multiple troubles already at Ferrari, claiming they were “useless” in developing a car and all the things we all hear from him, saying Ferrari car was bad. In fact he changed to McLaren not too far from that year.

    I know a lot of people doesn’t get half of the things Alonso tells the press. But he told the press lot of contradictory opinions all this years.
    He created the bad atmosphere in McLaren, he always claimed through the press that McLaren manipulated his car to make him lose against Hamilton, now he doesn’t tell us anything about that, and the day he returned to McLaren he change dramatically his opinion about that and said he never had a problem with Ron Dennis, just small things that made him change team, and that he also wasn’t mature enought to accept that situation when he was in the past on that team. So his opinions are pretty volatile as we all know.
    He created a lot of consiparatory theories during that years, etc etc.

    1. Very interesting so new information i didn’t know thanks!

  16. Nonetheless, with Lawrence Stroll’s operation revitalising the team, 2020-spec Mercedes hardware available for this year, greater familiarity with the design philosophy and the arrival of four-times champion Sebastian Vettel, there’s great scope for progress at the rebranded team.

    I don’t think Vettel will be able to get much out of the car to start with. Vettel succeeded when he had a short car with more grip at the rear so he could accelerate faster out of corners. That is the opposite to the Mercedes design philosophy of long wheelbase cars that are more neutral in balance. Maybe Aston Martin will develop the car more in that direction as the season progresses but based on last season’s development I’m not counting on them being able to make significant changes.

    1. The point about the RB was not so much about being shorter than what the Mercedes (including the pink, now green ones) are. Both the RBs Vettel was very successfull in as well as the Mercedes cars have a well planted rear, making it behave relatively predictably.

      What Vettel was missing most in the recent Ferrari’s seemed to be having a stable and predictable rear. Those cars had a lack of both. The Aston / Mercedes he will be driving the coming season is far more stable and so he can rely on the backend not to snap on him.

  17. What an excellent piece of analysis; congratulations.
    If I’m Olla Kallenius I’m not paying Lewis one centime, pence, Euro-cent or penny more than he was paid in 2020. If Lewis wouldn’t agree then so be it.

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