As Mercedes’ irritator-in-chief last season, all hopes of a proper Formula 1 title battle in 2021 likely rest on the shoulders of Max Verstappen.
He beat Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas early in 2020 and he rounded off an excellent season by inflicting Mercedes’ first ever defeat in Abu Dhabi in this engine era.
In between those triumphs, Verstappen didn’t have the package to fight for regular race wins. Will Red Bull’s RB16B be what he needs – and even if it is, what are the other factors that will determine Verstappen’s status as a title challenger?
Our F1 journalists Scott Mitchell, Mark Hughes and Edd Straw explain.
Will Red Bull finally start strong?
In previous year’s Red Bull’s hopes have been undone by supposed ‘correlation’ problems that mean what it does in the windtunnel and with CFD work doesn’t quite match what happens on-track.
That has held Verstappen back for Red Bull’s two seasons with Honda power, first with the new front-wing rules that were introduced in 2019 and then last year with a car that was prone to snaps at low-speed.
Red Bull also compounded its confusion in 2020 by bringing a raft of updates by the time the season eventually started in Austria. Its testing spec never raced, neither did the planned Australia version, or a subsequent upgrade. By the time RB16 took part in a grand prix it was two iterations removed from what the team ran at testing – where its worst characteristic was already problematic.
In theory, the carry over of major car parts for 2021 should eliminate this risk. Never before has Verstappen had a car so similar to its predecessor. So he will be dearly hoping that means his end-of-year form finally translates into the start of a new season.
However, there is still one important area of fresh development: adjusting to the new aero rules.
Red Bull was one of the few teams to conduct on-track trials with pared-back floors late last year, so it has already been able to correlate some windtunnel work. That could be a vital differentiator to past mishaps, as it gave the team a headstart.
If Red Bull has been able to iron out any kinks in its adaptation to the reduced downforce levels at the rear of the car, maybe this will be the year Verstappen can finally hit the ground running.
Is he ready for a title?
In terms of ability, Max Verstappen is comfortably good enough to already be a multiple world champion. He’s just never had the circumstances in which it’s been possible to fight for one.
But within the question is would he be fully equipped to prevail in a tight fight in an equal car against the far more title fight-seasoned Lewis Hamilton?
His circumstances so far have allowed him the ‘luxury’ of aggressively grabbing any rare opportunities for race wins without having to worry about the championship risk – and it’s worked brilliantly well for him. But there can be times in the long grind of a title campaign where it’s the moves you choose not to make that can work to your advantage.
Hamilton has long recognised the scale of challenge that Verstappen represents but a little incident between them in the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix was probably significant.
Verstappen had taken advantage of a safety car to be on tyres 12 laps newer than Hamilton and was closing him down quickly. So much more grip did he have it was obvious he’d be able to pass, probably at the hairpin, sometime in the remaining 21 laps.
Realising this, Hamilton left a tempting gap to his outside on the approach to the sweep of turn 7, not normally a passing place. In the adrenaline of battle, would Verstappen be tempted? He was. He went for the big around-the-outside move and it was a simple matter for Hamilton to take up his line, obliging Verstappen to take to the run-off (which lost him the race to team mate Ricciardo).
It’s those sorts of incidents that can cost titles when you are in contention for them. On the other hand, in Malaysia 2017 when Verstappen ambushed the title-chasing Hamilton early in the race in a marginal move, Hamilton had to resist the temptation to fight it out and it went against all his instincts.
But it’s easier to resist those moves when you’re fighting for the title and the other guys isn’t. What if in the same situation both were fighting for that title? In those situations might Verstappen’s gung-ho attitude even be a psychological advantage?
Will Mercedes finally trip up?
Mercedes will have been super-vigilant in ensuring its existing low-rake/long car philosophy has not been adversely effected by the 2021 tweaks to the aero regulations. But there are no guarantees.
In theory, the regulation trimming of the floors and restrictions upon the length of vanes on the diffuser and brake ducts might be expected to be bad news for the high-rake approach championed by Red Bull as that sort of car is working those components extra hard to keep the airflow attached at high ride heights.
On the other hand, a big part of the thinking behind last year’s Merc W11’s trick rear suspension was to move the centre of aerodynamic pressure rearwards so as to allow the car to be set up to more aggressively turning in to slow corners without inducing over-rotation at the rear.
Take away that rear-end downforce and will the Mercedes revert to being a little unresponsive in slow turns?
Such is the risk that Mercedes technical director James Allison was minded to state recently: “The rules are very, very different for 2021. The work we’ve had to do has been very wide-reaching and we hope we have done enough to stay successful.
“But as ever at this time of year, we are just full of the anxiety and excitement of waiting to find out whether all this investment that we have made into the new car will indeed pay off with a challenger that is capable of fighting from the front.”
Will Honda’s ‘2022’ engine be enough?
However good Red Bull’s RB16B is, it needs a Mercedes-matching engine to mount a championship challenge.
Honda has got closer in recent years but never quite hauled itself onto Mercedes’ level, and even professed itself “surprised” by Mercedes gains for 2020.
In response, Honda decided to up the ante for 2021. Yes, this is the final year of the Japanese manufacturer in F1 before it walks away. But its final engine of the V6 turbo-hybrid era is an all-new design brought forward from 2022.
Since the worst of its McLaren criticisms a few years ago, Honda has been quiet and reserved when it comes to discussing its technical progress.
There are so many ways in which the performance of the V6 turbo-hybrid engines can be altered that trying to speculate specifically what Honda has changed is a fool’s errand without first-hand knowledge of the technology.
But we do know this is being talked about as a radically upgraded design, with improvements to the combustion engine, turbocharger and energy recovery system.
It’s the biggest year-on-year change for Honda since it fundamentally changed the layout of its engine for 2017, and is new in almost every area.
Honda is wary of the reliability concerns that come with such a massive reworking of the engine, but it believes the performance gains were worth the risk.
Ahead of pre-season testing, Honda says the numbers from the dyno match what it expected.
The key question is whether that’s enough to power Red Bull to a title – or if Mercedes will trump the Japanese company yet again.
Can Perez be the wingman Verstappen needs?
Even if the Red Bull RB16B is good enough to win the world championship, Mercedes will also be strong contenders.
In a close title fight, the number two drivers can play a decisive role meaning Verstappen needs Sergio Perez to perform at a higher level than his previous two Red Bull team-mates, Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon, managed.
While Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff famously described Valtteri Bottas as a “sensational wingman” to Lewis Hamilton, when things get tight there are question marks about his capacity to take points off his team-mate’s title rival. Perez, meanwhile, has a superb record in F1’s midfield but has never been up against a driver of Verstappen’s prodigious ability.
Red Bull needs Perez to back up Verstappen on the good days for Red Bull, pick up the pieces on the bad days and cause problems for the Mercedes drivers the rest of the time. And he has the ability to do so provided he adapts to the demands of the Red Bull quickly.
For Red Bull to win the title, it will need both drivers in play.