Mercedes finished updating its 2020 Formula 1 car “a long time ago” and expects Red Bull to challenge it more over the rest of the season as a result.
Lewis Hamilton is the runaway championship leader in 2020 and Mercedes has steamrolled this season, winning nine of 11 races so far and securing pole position every time.
The only time it has been challenged on merit was when a perfect storm made Verstappen and Red Bull unbeatable in the second Silverstone race, and it also missed out on victory in the Italian Grand Prix unexpectedly won by Pierre Gasly after Hamilton had a penalty.
There has been a better run from Red Bull of late, which has been below its seasonal average deficit in the three grands prix since Monza.
Red Bull’s qualifying deficit to Mercedes in 2020
At the Nurburgring last weekend, aided by a new upgrade package, Verstappen even held provisional pole after the first runs in Q3 before slipping to third on the grid.
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff acknowledged after qualifying the pattern of Red Bull catching at the end of the season, hinting at a redirection of resources when he said Mercedes is “deploying the strategy we believe is right” and has to accept it will face more competition over the last few races.
After Sunday’s grand prix, he then outright admitted Mercedes’ 2020 car is not being developed any further.
“We finished them a long time ago,” Wolff said of the team’s updates.
“That has always been in the past what we looked at, it’s a thoroughly thought through the decision because not in every championship you can afford to close the book early.
“But the rules change quite a lot for next year. And in that respect we decided to, like in the previous years, to switch to next year’s car and this is why you can see that shifting performance between the teams.
“I think we always having a very strong start and middle of the season and then whoever continues to develop is strong at the end.”
Most teams have switched their focus to 2021 by now but there will likely be consequences based on how long each team continued their development.
F1 is keeping fundamental car components the same for 2021 but aerodynamic development is free and there are significant rule changes at the rear of the floor that will reduce the downforce produced by the cars.
As well as the benefit of starting this work earlier, there will be a knock-on effect for 2022 and F1’s new technical rules as well.
Next year, teams will operate with a budget cap and tighter aerodynamic development restrictions being enforced in 2021.
The more 2021 development is completed this year, the more a team can use its time and money next year on the 2022 rules, which cannot be worked on until next year.
Red Bull’s pace at the Nurburgring could have been boosted by a variety of factors as well as the RB16’s latest upgrade, such as Mercedes underperforming slightly (its advantage over all teams was smaller than normal) and the circuit being less power-sensitive, which will help engine partner Honda’s season-long deficit particularly at the end of long straights.
The engine mode technical directive stripping manufacturers of their highest power modes since the Italian Grand Prix has helped trim the Mercedes/Red Bull gap as well.
“Red Bull are closer to us and in qualifying, Lewis and Max both did their best times in Q2,” said Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin.
“If you look at everyone’s best times, it’s very, very close. Valtteri just put together a brilliant lap when it actually counted.
“They’ve been closing on us over the course of the year. Definitely the changes in the engine mode to stop the qualifying modes have brought them a step closer.
“I think they are developing quicker than we are at the moment and we’ve seen that progressively. But to be honest, we’ve seen that in most of the recent years, they tend to not start as strongly as we do.
“I can’t really think of a year recently where they’ve not been with us by the end.
“If we see that trend continue, then the remaining races are going to get tougher and it will be harder to try and keep getting the cars on pole on Saturday and winning on Sunday.”
Mercedes is on course for a seventh consecutive title double and if its focus on 2021 allows it to continue its form next year as well, Hamilton has a good chance of winning his eighth championship.
He matched Michael Schumacher’s outright win record last Sunday at the Nurburgring, and his likely seventh title this year will match Schumacher in that regard.
Wolff said such success is unlikely to disturb Mercedes and cause it to finally let its guard down.
“When you think too much about points, race wins or championships you’re getting distracted,” said Wolff.
“I think you need to be as good and as close to perfection in every single session, and then try to score as many points as possible in the race.
“And that’s why you must not look too much of what could be. But just concentrate on the task in front of you.
“For me personally, Michael will always be the most iconic race driver. I remember watching those years with Ferrari and Michael and who would have ever thought this record can be could be broken and here we go, 91 race wins.
“And it’s something to be proud of, but not something that should trigger too much of a complacency.
“That risk doesn’t exist within our team because we are relentless, we push for perfection and for tomorrow rather than looking back.”