Red Bull’s crushing Styrian Grand Prix victory gave it the final word after comments about its recent straight-line speed advantage drew frustrated remarks from team boss Christian Horner and star driver Max Verstappen over the weekend.
Formula 1’s first of two races at the Red Bull Ring played out against the backdrop of a curious back-and-forth over what Red Bull see as a fictionalised upgrade.
After the French Grand Prix, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said Red Bull had “made a huge step forward with their power unit”. The context at the time was the championship-leading team had taken on fresh Honda engines at Paul Ricard, although Wolff was not apparently linking the two. Honda still had a reasonably significant deficit to Mercedes last year but its major upgrades for 2021 appear to have finally hauled it level.
Mercedes’ world champion Lewis Hamilton also commented on Red Bull’s straight-line speed advantage, first in the build-up to the Styrian GP, then after Styrian GP qualifying when he said of Red Bull: “Either their wing’s just backing off more and more efficient, or they’ve got more power – one of the two”.
He couldn’t let it go after the race either, speculating again that Red Bull’s recent performance edge may have come from the new engine in France having lost a couple of tenths in clear air each lap down the Red Bull Ring’s three long straights.
During the weekend, Red Bull took these comments to be suggestions of a Honda upgrade, which would be against the rules.
Power unit manufacturers were allowed to make one change in specification from the end of 2020 to the end of 2021 and Honda introduced its heavily-revised engine for the start of this season.
Any subsequent changes must only be for reliability reasons. Honda is understood to have introduced small changes for its second set of engines in France, but these were reliability tweaks that were explained to the FIA and would have been communicated to rival manufacturers too.
The unchanged (in performance terms) Honda engine has, though, been married to an improved oil from supplier ExxonMobil that may well be worth tangible lap time. Any other gains have come from Honda better understanding its power unit and maximising its energy management system. Perhaps that explains speculation in Germany that Honda’s second engine is producing fractionally more power than before.
After a straight-line speed advantage apparently aided Red Bull’s run to pole position at this weekend’s Styrian Grand Prix, Verstappen’s irritation over the recent comments became clear with his response to an innocuous question about the trend of Honda’s engine performing particularly well at higher altitude.
“I’m surprised the Red Bull guys keep protesting so loudly on the power unit story. That is a bit weird.” :: Toto Wolff
“We’ve always been quite good with altitude but I think next time I’m going to bring a print-out of the rear wing difference we’re running and then I’m going to hand it over to every single journalist,” Verstappen said.
“Because I get these questions for like two or three weeks now, that we are really quick on the straight.
“Yes, we are but look at our rear wing, I don’t think it’s exactly the same.
“Honda did a great job compared to last year. From our first engine to the engine we have in the car now it’s all about reliability improvements and no clear advantage on pure power.
“So, I’m going to fire up my printer next time and I’m going to hand over a few shots.”
Essentially, Verstappen was fed up with what he perceived to be incorrect assertions. Red Bull may have a straight-line speed advantage but the source was, he suggested, being misconstrued – it’s the skinnier rear wing.
Red Bull has had a slightly more stable car than Mercedes since pre-season testing. It appears its mechanical/aerodynamic package is strong enough to allow it to run a more trimmed rear wing to get a crucial straight-line speed boost vs Mercedes without sacrificing too much cornering performance.
The odd thing is that Wolff has already acknowledged this. He pointed out on Friday at the Red Bull Ring “there shouldn’t be any difference” between power units when new ones are introduced this season and referenced the low-drag Red Bull set-up in France, “which clearly when you see the speed differences in Ricard made a big difference”.
“They ran a low wing and they were still as competitive as us through the corners and that shows that the car has downforce,” said Wolff.
“We just need to do our homework and to continue to improve rather than pointing a finger at the engine.
“This is all in the FIA’s territory and it is much too early to say anything like this, that the engine is more powerful. There are so many things that play a role.”
And after the race, Wolff categorically dismissed the notion that Mercedes even suspected something amiss with Honda’s second engine.
If Mercedes’ boss is publicly acknowledging that, it begs the question – where’s the tension come from? Horner, who was sitting beside Wolff (above) when he made those comments, even approved of the explanation.
But Horner couldn’t help himself in responding with a small dig at Hamilton, indicating the underlying frustration Red Bull had with any initial insinuations.
“Toto has answered it very well and I think maybe he should explain it to his driver,” said Horner.
“I listen with interest and sometimes some of the theories Lewis has are sometimes some way from reality.
“He [Wolff] has actually summarised it very well. We run a lower wing and as a result of that you tend to go a bit quicker down the straight sometimes.”
That could have been the end of it. But on Saturday, asked about the issue again, Wolff said: “I wonder why that is such a topic, when we all know that the power units need to be homologated?
“I’m really surprised that the Red Bull guys keep protesting so loudly on the power unit story. So that is a bit weird.”
Switching it back on Red Bull has all the hallmarks of a back-and-forth between title rivals where a misguided or misinterpreted comment (take your pick) here or there suddenly escalates through a ping-ponging of quotes.
Asking the question of them is valid but this issue, which is barely a storm in a teacup, could have been nipped in the bud by those at the heart of it. And it hasn’t been.
As Mark Hughes explained ahead of the Styrian GP, this feeds into a narrative of escalating tension between the two title rivals. But there may something else at play that explains why it got under Red Bull’s skin.
Red Bull has felt targeted in recent weeks – first with the flexi-wing saga, then with tyre pressure implications after Verstappen’s tyre failure in Azerbaijan, and this week with the news that new pitstop protocols will soon be implemented.
It believes it has faced unfair accusations lately. Against that backdrop, it’s probably no surprise that Red Bull’s most prominent figures have been riled up by rhetoric around another of its advantages.