Why Hamilton thinks a “great leap forward” by Red Bull has swung the title fight

Lap time watch: 2021 Austrian Grand Prix

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At the first race of 2021, Red Bull sent Mercedes a clear warning. Max Verstappen put his RB16B on pole position with a lap 0.388 seconds faster than Lewis Hamilton could manage.

Mercedes were much more competitive over the races which followed. But in the last three rounds Red Bull have forged ahead again.

It has not gone unnoticed by Hamilton that this coincided with the introduction of their second power units at the French Grand Prix. Toyoharu Tanabe, technical director of Red Bull’s power unit supplier Honda, rebuffed any suggestion that the introduction of the new engines explained their recent gains, performance upgrades being forbidden in-season.

Nonetheless Hamilton is adamant Red Bull have made a significant step forwards. “The start of this season, when the cars were so close in performance, pretty much equal, then it was really the most one of the most exciting times I’ve had for some time to be able to have this battle with Red Bull,” he said yesterday.

“Honestly, I was really hoping that it would continue on like that through he rest of the year. But as you’ve seen, they’ve taken a huge leap forward.”

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Red Bull Ring, 2021
Gallery: 2021 Austrian Grand Prix in pictures
How accurate is that characterisation of Red Bull’s progress? It’s clear that in relative terms that this weekend they do enjoy their greatest advantage over Mercedes so far this year. Mercedes’ best effort is 0.461% slower than Red Bull’s compared to 0.436% in Bahrain.

Presumably Hamilton still sees the French Grand Prix as the timing of that “great leap forward”. Over the five preceding races the difference between the two teams’ fastest laps was typically no more than 0.1% – Red Bull’s spike in Portugal is explained partly by Verstappen having his best qualifying time deleted.

A swing of around 0.3% in Red Bull’s favour occured after then – whether down to fresh power units, new lubricant, aerodynamic tweaks or other changes. It appears to have been amplified this weekend by Mercedes’ relative weakness on the softest compound tyres, which McLaren’s Lando Norris also took advantage of, putting them second-fastest.

The key question for the championship is whether that deficit is recoverable for Mercedes. A lot is riding on their upgrade package for Silverstone, which they have indicated will be their last of the season.

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2021 Austrian Grand Prix

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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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24 comments on “Why Hamilton thinks a “great leap forward” by Red Bull has swung the title fight”

  1. Why so much focus on the Honda engine “performance gain” when Mecedes is beaten by a customer engine? This indicates their car is part of the deficit, not only the engine..

    1. Then you will have to take into consideration that because Mclaren and Redbull run a car with a higher rake, the new diffuser regulation for 2021 affected Mercedes more, because they lost more surface area compared to Redbull or Mclaren and other teams running a higher rake.

      1. Tommy Scragend
        4th July 2021, 9:22

        Exactly. But that doesn’t fit Hamilton’s/Mercedes’ agenda that “Red Bull cheated”.

    2. The article isn’t about Merc’s car, but what RB improved to make a step forward.

      Having said that, I suspect it may already have dawned on them that this years car is a crock, relatively speaking. Lewis already said it needed some upgrades.

  2. I did actually think Lewis was now referencing Chairman Mao.

    I haven’t had my morning coffee yet.

    1. Lewis should start performing and make less errors. And stop complaining..

      1. @maxv ‘….and answering direct questions from the media.’ There you go finished your sentence and it now makes sense!

        1. @ju88sy prefer a Kimi over whiner Hamilton any day.

        2. Nonsense yet again. No matter what the media ask you, the answer is yours only, and you are responsible for it.
          It is true that the journos try to extract some sensational soundbit from you, and that if you are naïve you may be quoted saying something you did not really mean. But this happens to you once and then you learn, and unless you are hopelessly stupid you do not make the same mistake again,
          I would say lots of unflattering things about the knighted crybaby, but stupid is not one of them. Therefore, this endless stream of cheating accusations means that he is the one using the media for his purposes, not the other way around.

  3. Typical underdog narrative by Lewis. We’ve all heard it before Lewis. Such a shame that such a big athlete and sportsman can’t be more elegant in defeat

    1. If you don’t understand or identify what makes your competition strong how can you make progress.

    2. Davethechicken
      4th July 2021, 12:05

      Mayrton, it would be more accurate to substitute your own name for that of Lewis in your first sentence.
      The notion that the Red Bull is slower than the Merc is ridiculous. You seem to be blind to the blazingly obvious.
      I don’t understand your need to pretend Max is overcoming a fictional car deficit.

      1. Who says I am? I am referring to the moaning of someone else who I expected to be more gracious since I deeply respect his driving

  4. The chart nicely highlights that pure pace is only part of the story. In just Imola, Monaco and Azerbaijan Hamilton could have taken dozens of extra points if he had done a better job. The frequent attempts by Mercedes to question the legality of the Red Bull car seems a pretty poor attempt to distract from their own mistakes.

    But it’s working quite well, as Hamilton has so far not had to face a lot of the criticism aimed at Vettel in 2018, despite already making numerous errors that cost him a lot of points in the championship.

    1. Ok for Monaco and Baku, but I do not see how could have made more points in Imola. True after a race-killing mistake he should have not scored at all, but the red flag came to the rescue and he salvaged 18 points. The win seemed beyond his possibilities before the gravel trap visit, so he lost no points.

      1. A rare times I disagree, melanos: I think hamilton threw away some winning chances in imola with that mistake, he was gaining a lot on verstappen before, I think merc had better race pace in imola (and not only).

  5. Red Bull could do the following: Bring the best engine they could (which they did). The best engine was performant, but not tested enough, so it had low reliability. Red Bull then decreases the power output to make sure they finish races, and waits until Honda fixes the engine problems. Which eventually let’s them increase the performance without bringing any performance upgrades.

    1. Makes sense to me.

      One small step for Honda.

      One giant leap for RBR.

    2. Sounds nice but I don’t believe that is the full story. I’m not saying it is not true, but Mercedes is now being beaten by McLaren. The difference is mostly due to Merc falling back than RBR streaking ahead.

  6. ..and what will be his explanation when Mercedes is on the pace again in Silverstone?

    1. Indeed, it’s track dependant and I will not say red bull is clearly the best car unless their advantage continues in silverstone, for all I saw in spain red bull seems to be competitive enough for pole on mercedes tracks, but then lacks race pace.

  7. All jokes aside, imho this is what happened: the past years Mercedes got increasingly irritated by comments from RedBull about them having an easy job winning everything for 8 years bladibla. While in fact it is not easy at all to remain this successful for such a long long period. As soon as RB became a bit on par with them this year, Mercedes (like a 3 year old) started the pay back by immediately crawling into the underdog narrative. Throwing everything RB has thrown at them, right back. They should have waited a little bit however to make it credible. Now they’ve a large group of people seeing right through them and rightfully asking them to quit moaning. Lewis is just a victim of this process since he talks along with the teams narrative. He knows whats going on however: he has to really fight for it for the first time in many many years.

  8. It’s very sad that the almighty Mercedes team is almost letting this championship go with no upgrades in the future and constant complaining. Because when they were against the ropes with Ferrari in 2017/2018 they got back on it and beat them hard. I really hoped they’d fight hard off track too, instead of going around looking and sounding absolutely defeated.

  9. For people interested in why exactly the new rules might favor high rake designs, instead of the usual boring talk about who is whining and about whose fans are talking about who is whining, I recommend scarbs detailed video. In brief, the new floor cut rules mean that Mercedes cannot aero-seal its floor next to the tires because the rules forbid brake ducts to be below the rim. It also makes you realize that, once Mercedes figured out how to slot their outer floor to seal the floor, why high rake was was kind of a dead end—it was a crude solution. It’s higher drag and favors a shorter wheelbase which has its own set disadvantages.

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