Red Bull’s silver lining from its Portuguese Grand Prix defeat was that it was encouraged to split the two Mercedes and be so competitive on a track it expected to favour its Formula 1 rival.
Given how tight the fight is at the front and the intense championship battle that is brewing, it would seem unusual for any points dropped to be described as something that “bodes really well.”
But the argument is that even on one of Red Bull’s weaker weekends – Max Verstappen said he didn’t enjoy a single lap on the low-grip Algarve circuit – the team was able to minimise the damage.
It’s born from the belief that even though Verstappen was quick enough to take pole in Portugal had he not gone too wide at Turn 4 and had the lap deleted, the car was a handful and also lacked some straight-line speed to the Mercedes so would have been vulnerable in the race anyway.
“The Mercedes pace, particularly on the hard tyre, they had the advantage on us,” conceded Red Bull team boss Christian Horner.
“To have split the Mercedes at a circuit like [Algarve] actually bodes really well for us.
“Starting third finishing second, Max did a great job certainly at the restart to get ahead of Lewis. He then obviously had a moment, lost the place to Lewis.
“It’s all about those marginal gains, isn’t it? It’s very, very tight between us and Mercedes, which is tremendously encouraging.”
Red Bull is choosing to view the Portuguese Grand Prix as three points gained from Verstappen’s starting position rather than any number of points lost (whether that’s the bonus point Verstappen forfeited by having the fastest lap deleted because of another track limits violation, or seven points dropped by not winning the grand prix).
This weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona will test whether that position is justified. Even though it’s a track that has heralded Mercedes domination in the V6 turbo-hybrid era – aside from when the two Mercedes cars wiped each other out – it suits the 2021 Red Bull nicely on paper, given it has an advantage in higher-speed corners.
“We’re starting to get a picture of our strengths and weaknesses, but I always said it would take four races,” said Horner.
“We’ve got a pretty abnormal surface and extreme wind and cold conditions [in Portugal]. If we get a pretty standard Barcelona, we can see where our strengths and weaknesses are.
“But what we can see across every session is it’s incredibly tight. The biggest winner for that is Formula 1. And if it goes like this, for 23 races, it’s gonna be it’s gonna be nip and tuck.”
Red Bull is effectively banking on a more ‘normal’ weekend swinging the advantage back in its favour so it can claw back some points in both the drivers’ and teams’ championships.
After two cooler weekends the warmer conditions in Spain and more abrasive tarmac swing things a little closer towards Bahrain, although based on the forecast to nowhere near the same extreme as in the Middle East.
Whatever the weather, in all likelihood any edge either way is likely to be marginal. Anything to the contrary would be a surprise. But given its insistence second in Portugal was not a bad result, the expectation would be that Red Bull has the edge. It should be more settled at Barcelona, and it was fast enough for pole in Portugal when things were a little more ragged.
Mercedes continues to project enthusiasm about the challenge it is facing from Red Bull and each party has done its utmost to insist the other is the favourite.
That is simply a reflection of how close it is. Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin believes “it will be more of the same” in Spain.
“You won’t be able to split them,” he said. “You won’t be able to read quali. You won’t be able to read the race.
“It’ll be just very very tight, and we’re kind of settling into that. I think the whole year is going to be a bit like that and you’ve actually got to enjoy the competition.”
His boss Toto Wolff echoed the sentiment, adding “it’s going to be a fight, neck-to-neck, for a long time”. That means both teams will expect to win some and lose some over the course of the year.
People in F1 always play down the bad stuff so it’s no surprise to hear Red Bull’s optimistic take of the Portugal defeat on the basis it was such a close defeat.
In a tough title fight, a defeat is a defeat. It is never preferable. But it can be palatable, so long as the losses on bad days are followed by wins on good days.
That’s what Spain represents to Red Bull this weekend.