Mercedes count cost of floor rules change as Red Bull lead the way in Bahrain

2021 Bahrain Grand Prix Friday practice analysis

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The first two practice sessions of the Formula 1 season in Bahrain were both topped by Max Verstappen. Besides the Red Bull driver looking totally at one with his car, there was plenty to take away from this year’s first serious day of track action.

First practice one took place in sweltering conditions, with the air temperature above 33C for much of the session. The track temperature started off very high, towards 48C, before the lowering sun gradually brought temperatures down fractionally.

Running at the hottest time possible wasn’t going to provide useful data for what will be a far cooler night race, so despite the session being shortened from 90 minutes to 60 (as will be the case for all Friday sessions during 2021), the more representative laps didn’t come in until the end of the session.

Behind Verstappen’s Red Bull came the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas. The Mercedes-powered teams look like they will have a straight line speed advantage this year, with the top speeds all around the lap repeatedly being achieved by drivers with the brand’s power unit in their car.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Bahrain International Circuit, 2021
Verstappen led the way in both of today’s sessions
However Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc shared a detail at the end of the day which makes the picture not as clear cut. “We haven’t run [our power unit] flat out yet but I don’t think it’s the case for anybody in the paddock today,” he said. “So we don’t know how much they are sandbagging.” Any attempts at ‘sandbagging’ in second practice were masked by the fact that so many cars were on track at once that most laps were mired by traffic to some extent.

The evening session also marked a change of instruction from the race director regarding track limits at turn four. Perhaps no one told Valtteri Bottas, as on no fewer than five occasions he had a time deleted for heading wide over the white lines on the outside of the exit of the corner. The other 19 drivers only had four laps deleted between them.

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Both Mercedes drivers pinned their difficulties at that corner on a combination of the 15kph winds and an unstable rear end that had also been a problem in testing. Lewis Hamilton also laid blame on “performance we’ve lost on tyres this year” as he ended the day third fastest behind Verstappen and McLaren’s Lando Norris.

The root of Mercedes’ rear end instability problems appears to be the changes to the rear floor, brake ducts and diffusers imposed by the 2021 regulations to cut downforce. Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff believes ‘high rake’ cars such as the Red Bull have been less severely affected by this change than their ‘low rake’ design.

“We probably suffered more with the change of regulations than the cars with higher rake, and the Red Bull has followed that concept for many years,” he said.

Aston Martin’s low rake car may have also suffered
“So it makes it more difficult for us to recover some of the lost downforce. But so far, what I’ve seen and what I hope is that we can really have a really tough fight, it’s what the fans want to see and what we would like to have.”

Meanwhile Aston Martin, who decided to emulate Mercedes’ low-rake approach last year, also had a low-key start to the first race weekend of the year.

Williams put the greatest onus on long runs on the medium compound in the evening session, with both Nicholas Latifi and George Russell completing unrivalled (in distance) 14-lap stints at what can be considered race pace. Alpine was next best with F1 returnee Fernando Alonso covering 13 laps in his longest stint and Esteban Ocon racking up 12. Both Aston Martin drivers also hit the 10-lap mark on their long runs, as did Giovinazzi and Norris.

At the bottom of the times, and with fewer laps too despite their inexperience, were Haas rookies Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher. Mazepin found his first ever F1 practice sessions “quite challenging” from a technical perspective but “very special”, while Schumacher admitted that practice one was his first time driving an F1 car in hot conditions.

“I feel really comfortable in the car, which is obviously a very good sign,” Schumacher said. “It shows that we’ve done the right work to prepare myself and to get into the car and just be comfortable.”

Qualifying tomorrow will provide the first indication of the true pecking order, though as always race tactics will also be at play. Pirelli indicated the soft tyre compound, which takes a pounding on the highly abrasive Bahrain track, looks like a better race tyre than expected on account of its superior performance.

Pirelli’s head of F1 and motorsport Mario Isola revealed the soft tyre was on average 0.9s quicker per lap than medium – around twice what was predicted. The performance gap between the medium and hard – used frequently by Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi and the two Alpine drivers – was, as expected, around 0.4s.

Another part of the puzzle for teams is the comparatively slow lap times, even given the windy conditions, which were much as in pre-season testing. Ferrari got closer to their 2020 pace than anyone, but were still almost two seconds away.

“The track was not quick today but it’s still difficult to understand why the track was not quick,” Isola observed. After a day of remarkably close lap times – one second covered the top 16 drivers, and eight of the 10 teams – that may be a further indication there’s a lot of sandbagging going on among all that sand.

Quotes: Dieter Rencken

Maximum speeds

# Driver Car Engine Max speed (kph) Gap
1 10 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri Honda 326
2 22 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri Honda 324.6 1.4
3 6 Nicholas Latifi Williams Mercedes 320.3 5.7
4 63 George Russell Williams Mercedes 319.9 6.1
5 16 Charles Leclerc Ferrari Ferrari 317.9 8.1
6 99 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Ferrari 317.7 8.3
7 18 Lance Stroll Aston Martin Mercedes 315.9 10.1
8 11 Sergio Perez Red Bull Honda 315.8 10.2
9 55 Carlos Sainz Jnr Ferrari Ferrari 315.7 10.3
10 4 Lando Norris McLaren Mercedes 315.4 10.6
11 3 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren Mercedes 315 11
12 7 Kimi Raikkonen Alfa Romeo Ferrari 314.8 11.2
13 77 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes Mercedes 314.8 11.2
14 5 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin Mercedes 314.5 11.5
15 31 Esteban Ocon Alpine Renault 314.5 11.5
16 47 Mick Schumacher Haas Ferrari 313.6 12.4
17 44 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes Mercedes 313.4 12.6
18 9 Nikita Mazepin Haas Ferrari 313.4 12.6
19 14 Fernando Alonso Alpine Renault 313.3 12.7
20 33 Max Verstappen Red Bull Honda 311.5 14.5

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Combined practice times

Pos Driver Car FP1 FP2 Total laps
1 Max Verstappen Red Bull-Honda 1’31.394 1’30.847 35
2 Lando Norris McLaren-Mercedes 1’31.897 1’30.942 45
3 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1’31.921 1’31.082 39
4 Carlos Sainz Jnr Ferrari 1’32.366 1’31.127 41
5 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1’31.692 1’31.218 40
6 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren-Mercedes 1’32.434 1’31.230 42
7 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri-Honda 1’33.329 1’31.294 44
8 Lance Stroll Aston Martin-Mercedes 1’33.233 1’31.393 44
9 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri-Honda 1’32.195 1’31.483 50
10 Sergio Perez Red Bull-Honda 1’32.071 1’31.503 38
11 Esteban Ocon Alpine-Renault 1’33.528 1’31.601 44
12 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 1’31.993 1’31.612 40
13 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo-Ferrari 1’32.786 1’31.740 43
14 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin-Mercedes 1’33.157 1’31.769 47
15 Fernando Alonso Alpine-Renault 1’33.872 1’31.770 42
16 Kimi Raikkonen Alfa Romeo-Ferrari 1’33.134 1’31.862 33
17 George Russell Williams-Mercedes 1’34.127 1’32.331 50
18 Mick Schumacher Haas-Ferrari 1’34.501 1’33.297 40
19 Nicholas Latifi Williams-Mercedes 1’34.340 1’33.400 50
20 Nikita Mazepin Haas-Ferrari 1’34.975 1’33.449 35

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Teams’ progress vs 2020

2021 Bahrain Grand Prix

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Author information

Ida Wood
Often found in junior single-seater paddocks around Europe doing journalism and television commentary, or dabbling in teaching photography back in the UK. Currently based...

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10 comments on “Mercedes count cost of floor rules change as Red Bull lead the way in Bahrain”

  1. Every single year you journalists try to hype up the start of the Formula One season with this “Mercedes won’t win this year” story. It is all so tiresome.

    1. At the end of the day nobody knows until the lights go out and the racing starts. At least there are a lot of changes in the field this year to provide interest if it turns out that Mercedes are in a league of their own again.

    2. Anon A. Mouse
      27th March 2021, 2:00

      It’s similarly tiresome to hear fans trot out the “Mercedes Domination This Year” response.

      1. Maybe it’s tiresome, but it’s so easy to understand. Sport without any true competition can become a bit boring, specially if that goes on for almost a decade. Life is short… What I don’t understand is negative feelings towards the best team. Now they’ll have similar budgets, so we’ll see, it’ll be more of a fair game.

      2. The’yre the most dominant team in the sports history and have won the last 7 straight.

        I think it’s reasonable for people to think that is going to continue.

    3. IVAYLO I don’t recall many journalists in recent years opining at the start of seasons that Mercedes wouldn’t win. I’m pretty sure their stance has been moreso would anyone be able to beat Mercedes.

  2. geoffgroom44 (@)
    27th March 2021, 0:04

    and the sub-story,that the commentators and journalists don’t seem to want to talk about (yet) is the ‘Alex Syndrome’ difference in lap times between Max and Sergio.
    Yuki Tsunoda is excitingly impressive.
    I am hoping Mercedes will have to deal with some real challenges this year from other teams.I am hoping this because I want to see how high Lewis can take the perception of perfection.

    1. Because all we’ve had to compare Max and Sergio so far are pre season testing and practice sessions, which are not really accurate ways to make comparisons. Plus you would think the Red Bull is an evolution of the car Max has been driving for several years, whereas Sergio is brand new to it so he is going to need a few races to get to grips with it most likely. If there’s a massive difference after 4 or 5 races, I’m sure journalists won’t hesitate to pick up on that.

      1. I think the difference in familiarity is probably the main difference.

        However, we also shouldn’t forget that Max has been hailed as a Wunderkind, a future world champion. He is certainly one of the best drivers on the grid right now. A part of me wonders if he is just completely out driving that car, and anyone else will have trouble coming close… We shall soon see, and I seriously hope Perez does well.

    2. @geoffgroom44 It’s a bit too early to be drawing conclusions after two practice sessions, but honestly I think a lot of people are expecting too much from Perez. He’s not renowned as an outstanding qualifier so personally in qualifying i don’t expect him to be much closer to Max than Gasly or Albon were. I still expect him to be 4-5 tenths down on most weekends, which depending on the pace difference between the Redbull and the ‘midfield’ could be quite a big difference in grid slots. But like i said, too early to draw conclusions before a single competitive session has taken place.

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