Seasoned F1 fans know not to get too carried away by pre-season testing.
Often obstacles that emerge before the new campaign can be overcome – unless you’re Ferrari, that is, and even the speediest in testing may go on to have a mediocre season despite their early promise.
But with Red Bull, the sense among those in the know is that a more concerted title challenge is on the cards in 2021.
They were outstanding in testing, with the new RB16B car proving to be incredibly fast and reliable of build. That is particularly interesting, given that the firm is often a slow-starter in the new season – Max Verstappen was forced to retire from the Austrian Grand Prix which acted as the curtain-raiser to the 2020 term.
Lewis Hamilton says Mercedes will face the challenge of finding more pace from their new car ahead of next week’s season-opening Bahrain GP head on, after F1’s serial world champions conceded they were not as fast as Red Bull in pre-season testing.
— Sky Sports (@SkySports) March 16, 2021
A series of tweaks to the car has seen the ‘high rake’ design once again deployed, and regulatory changes may have allowed Red Bull to eke out marginal gains – AlphaTauri, another prominent high rake car, also tested strongly.
In contrast, Mercedes’ testing program was rather less successful. They unveiled their W12 vehicle, and their practice sessions were beset by gearbox issues and a lack of balance, which saw Lewis Hamilton spin off the track on two occasions.
Afterwards, the defending world champion claimed that the German manufacturer had a ‘lot of work to do’ before the new season, and the suspicion is that Red Bull head into it as an unlikely favorite to win the Bahrain Grand Prix on March 26, and also to be a more forceful opponent in the World Championship shake-up.
At the time of this writing, Verstappen was the 6/4 favorite in the Space Casino betting odds to win the season’s opener and Red Bull are 11/4 to land the Constructors’ Championship.
Their team principal, Christian Horner, played down their chances but, secretly, he must be as confident as he has ever been heading into a new season. “They [Mercedes] come into this year as absolutely the favorites,” he told Sky Sports.
“There is a change to the technical regulations which obviously may have an effect on things, but I don’t think you can read too much into their testing.”
There are those who believe that, all things considered, Max Verstappen is every bit as strong a driver as Lewis Hamilton.
And this season, he might just get a chance to show it if Red Bull have been able to close the gap on Mercedes – it certainly appeared so during testing.
Of course, the real business is performance on race day, and it’s in the spotlight where Verstappen seems to be at his best.
— Telegraph Sport (@TelegraphSport) March 12, 2021
He finished last season just nine points behind Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas to secure a second consecutive third-place finish in the Drivers’ Championship, and usurping the Finn will be his minimum objective this term.
He will be joined at Red Bull by Sergio Perez, a driver many believe has the skillset to step up to a higher level having been released by Racing Point. If he too brings his A-game, Mercedes will undoubtedly have their hands full.
Could this be the year that their seven-season dominance of the sport comes to an end?