The optimism of a Red Bull Formula 1 title challenge in 2021 is impossible to ignore, despite the team’s best efforts to play down expectations.
A strong pre-season testing performance with its sweet-handling RB16B and all-new Honda engine suggests that Red Bull’s biggest issue in recent years – failing to hit the ground running – might finally be banished.
Team boss Christian Horner has even admitted: “It is good that we have a solid basis from which to develop the car, rather than fixing an inherent problem.”
That, allied with Mercedes’ rear instability problem, means Red Bull is in uncharted territory heading to a season opener in the V6 turbo-hybrid era.
It is having to convince people that Mercedes is wrong about who is ahead.
“Mercedes are still the favourites – how can they not be when they have won seven world championships in a row?” said Red Bull’s lead driver Max Verstappen in the build-up to the Bahrain Grand Prix.
“I’m sure Mercedes also want people to think we are the favourites and put the pressure on us but we are just focussed on ourselves.
“I see every season as a new opportunity to beat them, but we would be stupid to expect that fight to be easy and look at testing and think we are ahead.”
Here’s what our experts at The Race think of Red Bull’s prospects and what they expect when the season begins this weekend.
The sense of a real Honda breakthrough
– Scott Mitchell
Until we see how quickly Mercedes gets a handle on its pre-season issues I cannot have total faith in Red Bull. Mercedes was in excellent form last year, arguably the best package it has produced in this engine era. So if the team doesn’t have the sort of “inherent problem” Red Bull has been afflicted with in the past I am struggling to believe Mercedes won’t have a vital edge when everything’s working.
That said, I have more confidence than ever about a crucial part of the Red Bull package: the engine.
Since I started covering F1 full-time in 2018 have followed Honda’s progress closely. I’ve seen the rebuild that occurred with Toro Rosso in 2018 and won over Red Bull, the progress through 2019 that included adopting jet-engine technology, and the disappointment that was felt last year when Honda was caught out by how much progress Mercedes had made.
In that time I have come to accept that Honda is inherently conservative with its messaging, a legacy of the damage done during the McLaren years no doubt. I have noticed a clear shift this pre-season. Honda seems confident, maybe even bullish. It believes it has made a proper step with this engine and that it has the potential to beat Mercedes.
Talk is cheap. But I tend to believe that if someone tells you something is bad – which Honda has done over the last few years – you can trust them when they say something is good.
There’s a clear sense the engine Red Bull will use in 2021 will be very good. If that’s matched to a chassis as good as it looked in testing, why not believe Red Bull can at least take the fight to Mercedes – if not beat it outright?
It needs to conjure the spirit of 2010
– Matt Beer
Red Bull won three of its four titles as F1’s unstoppable force (with a Fernando Alonso induced asterisk over the way it and Sebastian Vettel nearly lost the 2012 title to a slower car driven by a genius), then has spent seven years so far from championship-worthy status that the very best it could hope was for a handful of consolatory wins.
Now it’s going into 2021 with almost certainly the fastest car again, but realistic enough to know that Mercedes will sure be just as fast – and probably faster – before long.
So to win the 2021 championship will probably take something more like its 2010 triumph, when it was vying with Ferrari and McLaren over actually having the fastest car at any given race, but outsmarted its opposition – helped by being under far less pressure of expectation as a relative F1 upstart.
Don’t fall into the trap
– Glenn Freeman
We’ve all been burned too many times. Mercedes could have failed to run at all during testing and it would still feel like taking a punt to suggest it couldn’t win the first race. And if its testing problems were real, when a team that good has two weeks to find out what wasn’t working, you have to back it to come up with the solution. The only thing that could slow it down is if that solution takes a while to get onto the car.
So let’s not fall into the trap. The best we can hope for is that Red Bull is a genuine threat to Mercedes from the first race.
If that proves to be the case, then things could get very interesting as the year goes on. Every team will be desperate to pour more resource into the new rules for 2022 and switch off 2021 car development as early as possible.
If Red Bull is snapping at Mercedes’ heels from race one, and Max Verstappen is in striking distance in the championship as we get a few months into the season, who blinks first? Would Mercedes take the risk of a difficult end to this year to guarantee it starts 2022 on the front foot? Would Red Bull be willing to play catch up at the start of the next rules cycle to end a title drought stretching back to 2013?
Let’s hope we get to find out.
There’s logic to it being different for Red Bull in 2021
– Mark Hughes
Maybe partly because I want it to be true – I want Mercedes to see some genuine hard-edged competition that will light up the season and I want to see Hamilton vs Verstappen with no polluting factors – I want to say that yes it’s realistic. So there’s that.
But also there’s a logic to it. Too often in recent years Red Bull has begun the season with a basic aero problem and spent much of the season ironing it out – often ending up as the fastest by the time it no longer matters.
This time they appear to have a nicely-balanced car right from the start and the ambition evident at Honda with this power unit are genuinely exciting.
So by no means a done deal, but yes I believe Red Bull’s title hopes are realistic.
Perez is a plus regardless of the outcome
– Jack Benyon
No one person wins races for a Formula 1 team, but I do believe one man has buoyed the Red Bull team regardless of whether it’s really currently faster than Mercedes or not.
Red Bull has had some solid streaks over the past few seasons and when there’s a sniff of a win Max Verstappen almost always takes it. But for too long now he’s lacked the rear gunner to supplant his efforts and put Mercedes under serious pressure.
Mercedes has been able to make comfortable and conservative race decisions in the heat of battle, knowing it only has to worry about covering off Verstappen.
However, the man causing some Red Bull buoyancy must be Sergio Perez. Gone are the days now where Alex Albon and Pierre Gasly will squander podiums and wins for finishing in the second half of the top 10. Perez is an established and experienced driver who will deliver better results in the majority of those scenarios.
That’s going to be an immediate points boost for Red Bull, and even if it turns out Mercedes does have a marginally faster car, will still allow it to fight for the title on the strength of the opportunities Perez takes.
Vertsappen will take those opportunities, he invariably has. Now he has real support that will allow Red Bull to steal points away from Mercedes and put it under real pressure.
Mercedes can never be discounted
– Gary Anderson
Red Bull’s chances of starting the season strongly have never been better in the 1.6-litre V6 turbo hybrid era. The car looked good in pre-season testing, Max Verstappen is full of confidence and Sergio Perez knows he has the chance of a lifetime to actually stand on the podium regularly by racing at the front.
So for once, it looks like Red Bull can start the season aiming to score big points from the first race and really put the pressure on Mercedes. The question is, will it happen?
Mercedes can never be discounted. I’m pretty sure everyone there will have been burning the midnight oil to try and get on top of the ‘diva’ problems – if, that is, they really had any. From the outside, the car didn’t look well-balanced or consistent, but there’s always the chance it was running extra fuel load or an unusual race mode? And did we ever see Mercedes try to do a competitive lap time?
There are many, many questions but so far no answers – until, that is, qualifying on Saturday evening in Bahrain is over. We will get further confirmation on Sunday and it’s only after that that we will know if mercedes have been able to pull the rabbit out of the hat and it’s just going to be another season of dominance, or if we will actually see some real racing for a change.
I can’t wait. Can you?
Now there are no excuses
– Edd Straw
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner’s point about the lack of an “inherent problem” for the team to solve is critical. It means that even if Mercedes is stronger in Bahrain this weekend than it looked in testing – and there’s every chance that it will be – Red Bull has no excuse not to be in contention.
A team that was once so sure-footed in its title-winning pomp has become less convincing over recent years. But it’s true that there have always been key weaknesses to get round. When it wasn’t engine problems with Renault, they were aerodynamic problems triggered by rule changes in 2017 and 2019 that the team wasn’t able to adapt to immediately that showed up windtunnel problems.
Last year, Red Bull made the right move in terms of its concept with the narrow nose change but did bake-in fundamental problems. At the second attempt, things should be right. Red Bull is certain this concept has the potential to be a Mercedes-beater, so with no inherent errors to fix now this will be a true test of the team’s mettle.
Red Bull has pulled it off before, but it’s been a long time since that team has been in a championship fight. This is the chance for it to show that it’s still capable of being the true powerhouse it once was.
If it is, it could make for a spectacular title fight. If not, then it’ll just be another year when Red Bull has let F1 down by not being up there with Mercedes.