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How Red Bull beat Mercedes, upgrades, analysis, 2022 changes

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Max Verstappen has regained the lead in the 2021 Formula One title race and looks well-poised to be the man that finally ends Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes’ reign of terror.

Hamilton has won six of the past seven world titles, while not since 2013 has Mercedes failed to win the constructors’ championship.

Mercedes is still the favourite to win the team title again this season, but Verstappen appears to be in the box seat to wear the drivers’ crown for the first time.

So how, after such a long period of dominance, did Red Bull finally chase Hamilton and Mercedes down?

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Norris loses it over ‘blowy’ gaffe | 01:07

COVID CURVEBALL

The 2021 season was meant to the be the first of F1’s new era, where there will be significant changes to both technical and sporting regulations, including an emphasis on cost-cutting.

But due to the coronavirus pandemic, teams felt a big hit to their back pockets which inhibited their ability to prepare for the radical overhaul.

As such, F1 agreed to push back the changes by a year to 2022 due to the financial difficulties — but there was a catch.

A decision was made for a few rule tweaks in 2021 which — while they may sound minor — have actually had a major impact.

The changes were geared towards cutting costs and improving safety by reducing stress on new tyres.

Part of the rear floor — pivotal to rear downforce — was removed, while changes were made to other key aerodynamic components.

While less downforce means less grip, less grip means cars are unable to corner as fast, thus reducing the stress on tyres.

These changes impacted all teams, but it became apparent immediately that they impacted Red Bull less than Mercedes because of a difference in philosophy.

Red Bull is known for having a ‘high-rake’ philosophy, which means that the back of its car is noticeably higher than its front. The high rear wing collects more wind, and thus more drag while pushing the car into the ground, otherwise known as downforce.

Extra downforce stabilises cars, giving them more grip that allows drivers to corner quicker.

Mercedes’ car, however, is more level from front-to-back, known as a ‘low-rake’ design. As such, it inherently has less rear downforce, with the trade-off being faster straight-line speeds due to less drag.

Given the rule changes affected the rear aerodynamics of the car, Red Bull was best-equipped to weather the storm.

Aston Martin (formerly Racing Point) is another team with a low-rake concept which has been swallowed by the midfield in 2021 after a strong showing in 2020.

Team boss Otmar Szafnauer said it was “pointed out last year by the low-rake runners that this would have a bigger effect than on the high-rake runners. And we were correct.”

Red Bull has a ‘high-rake’ design compared to Mercedes’ ‘low-rake’.
Red Bull has a ‘high-rake’ design compared to Mercedes’ ‘low-rake’.Source: Getty Images

2021 vs 2022

Mercedes suddenly found itself in an unfamiliar position but the alarm bells swiftly subsided.

While Red Bull appeared to start the season with the stronger car, the team kept finding a way to trip over itself; whether it was Verstappen exceeding track limits in Bahrain or a strategy bungle in Spain.

Hamilton won three of the first four races and, suddenly, Mercedes felt more comfortable about its seven-time world champion holding off the plucky Verstappen.

In a massive gamble, Mercedes turned all attention — and funds — towards development for 2022 and onwards and neglected its 2021 challenger.

The reason was not because Mercedes is so cocky that it doesn’t feel like it needs to upgrade its car in 2021, but rather that new regulations and cost-cutting measures forced it into making a choice.

F1 has introduced a sliding scale of aerodynamic testing time into this year’s regulations. Simply put, it means the best teams can spend less time in the wind tunnel than the worst teams.

Wind tunnel running time is crucial to improving a car’s aerodynamics but, with limited time to work with, Mercedes felt prioritising 2022 would be the best use of its small window.

Furthermore, a spending cap was implemented this season, restricting teams to a A$195 million spend to try and further level the playing field.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said earlier this year that the team simply couldn’t justify spending the cap it on 2021 development, given teams will get far more bang for their buck by spending it on next generation’s challengers.

“We are having new regulations not only for next year but for years to come, a completely different car concept, and you’ve got to choose the right balance,” Wolff said.

“It would make no sense to put a week or two (or) a month back on the current car, because the gains wouldn’t be anywhere near of the gains we are making on the 2022 car.”

Meanwhile, Red Bull continued a steady stream of upgrades and won five-straight races between the Monaco and Austrian Grands Prix.

Mercedes, perhaps unsurprisingly, did secretly have an upgrade in the works after all, but one that dated back to its ‘21 tunnel program and wasn’t readied until the British Grand Prix.

The upgrades largely centred around re-profiling the car’s floor and a reworked bargeboard area to improve downforce.

Toto Wolff and Christian Horner’s teams have taken a different approach.Source: Getty Images

They seemed to work well as Hamilton broke Red Bull’s streak in Silverstone with his fourth win of the season, while he was faster at the Hungaroring, too.

The upgrade, Mercedes says, is definitively the last of its 2021 campaign.

Red Bull, however, has charged on with its aggressive strategy having already answered back with upgrades at the Belgian and Dutch GPs, both won by Verstappen.

Team boss Christian Horner said ahead of the races that it was “not in our culture” to give up on 2021 development, and said he believed Red Bull had struck the right balance.

Asked by Motorsport.com if he had concerns about a knock-on effect for 2021, he said: “To be honest, I don’t think so.

“We have enough people already also working on next year’s car.

“We can talk about it for a long time, but also I personally don’t know how good or how bad it’s going to be next year.

“Nobody knows, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Quite simply, Red Bull has a rare chance to win in 2021 — Verstappen would be its first wold champion since Sebastian Vettel in 2013 — and it isn’t willing to let it slip away.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR NEXT YEAR?

It depends who you believe.

Horner and Verstappen don’t think, publicly at least, that Red Bull will be behind the curve next year despite its investment into 2021.

Nonetheless, it seems likely it won’t be as well prepared as Mercedes, while Red Bull doesn’t have the best track record heading into new F1 eras.

The last seismic shake-up was when hybrid turbo power units were introduced in 2014. The change stopped Red Bull dead in its tracks after Vettel had won four titles in a row, and it wasn’t until the team ditched Renault power units for Honda that a noticeable improvement was made.

Merdedes rejoined F1 as a works team in 2010 and spent seasons preparing for the hybrid era, in which it has never failed to claim the title.

F1’s attempts to level the playing field, chiefly through a spending cap which will become stricter, means that Mercedes, in theory, won’t run away as easily as it did in the hybrid era.

Nonetheless, its extreme focus on 2022 is an ominous sign for teams moving forward, particularly Red Bull.

Verstappen is well-poised to finally end Mercedes’ run.Source: Getty Images

BUT WILL RED BULL WIN THE TITLE THIS YEAR AT LEAST?

Verstappen is now certainly the favourite to do so.

He has six race wins in the past nine Grands Prix — a period in which Hamilton has only won once.

That said, for all of Red Bull’s dominance, Verstappen still only holds onto a narrow three-point lead in the championship. Hamilton has expertly found a way to limit damage and take his chances when they have arisen.

Mercedes’ hopes are far from dead and buried. Red Bull’s Honda power unit, as improved as it may be, is still weaker than that of Mercedes which continues to excel at low-drag tracks.

Silverstone is a prime example of somewhere where Mercedes can continue to dominate, while it was strong in Hungary too.

The next race is at Monza, the fastest track of the calendar where Hamilton is a strong chance of winning as well. Meanwhile, Russia and Abu Dhabi also showcase monster straights where Mercedes can still flex its muscles over Red Bull.

That said, the majority of the remaining tracks — such as in Brazil, Mexico and Turkey — should play into Red Bull’s hands and give Verstappen enough opportunities to rack up the wins he needs.

With 25 points on offer for each win, the key will be to avoid any more retirements which could ultimately decide the season.

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F1 news, drivers’ championship, state of play, final race in Abu Dhabi preview, Lewis Hamilton vs Max Verstappen, standings

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It all comes down to this.

For just the second time in Formula 1 history, the top two drivers are level on points heading into the final race of the season.

And it was even less likely to happen in 2021 than it was in 1974, when Emerson Fittipaldi beat Clay Regazzoni to the title, because many more points are given out nowadays.

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When Fittipaldi won his second world title, he won with 55 points from Regazzoni’s 52. This time, Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton are tied on an extremely specific 369.5 points.

Verstappen has pole position thanks to his uber-consistent season, featuring nine wins, eight seconds, a ninth, five fastest laps and five points from the three qualifying sprints.

Hamilton has come charging home, with three consecutive wins to bring his season tally to eight, plus seven seconds, a third, a fourth, a fifth, a seventh, six fastest laps and two points from a qualifying sprint.

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Perhaps it won’t be decided on the final corner, like Hamilton over Massa in 2008 – though who knows? – but the most thrilling title race since at least that famous season will find a conclusion in Abu Dhabi this coming weekend.

Not that the drivers’ championship is the only crown to be given out, with the constructors’ crown not yet locked up, plus there are crucial battles in the midfield that must be decided.

Here’s the state of play for the Formula 1 season heading into the last race.

Radio confusion at Saudi Arabia GP! | 01:16

Current drivers’ standings (Top two teams)

1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) – 369.5 pts

2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – 369.5 pts

3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) – 218 pts

4. Sergio Perez (Mercedes) – 190 pts

THE TITLE FIGHT

In a sense, it’s very simple; whoever finishes ahead of the other in Abu Dhabi will claim the 2021 drivers’ championship*.

Lewis Hamilton will be feeling confident as his Mercedes has looked like the fastest car on the grid for several races, ever since they took repeated engine penalties to ensure they had extra power units in the pool.

Hamilton has won at Abu Dhabi more than any other driver, with five triumphs, though the last time the title race went down to the wire in the Middle East in 2016, he couldn’t seal the crown over teammate Nico Rosberg.

And Max Verstappen has been both quick and clever in recent races. He should’ve been on pole in Saudi Arabia, if not for a crash on the last corner in qualifying, having been three tenths up during the final sector.

Verstappen won last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, taking pole by .025 seconds from Valtteri Bottas and leading every lap, showing that the current Red Bull isn’t ill-suited to the track.

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For those worried about the race being a bit of a procession, as we’ve seen in recent years: keep in mind the Abu Dhabi circuit has been altered to help overtaking.

The sequence of 90-degree bends after the second back straight has been turned into a single banked turn, which the cars are expected to take at 240 km/h, while the chicane heading into the first back straight has also been removed.

Along with the opening up of several corners in the street circuit-like final sector, it’s hoped the track will be both faster and more exciting.

You’d still pick Hamilton to win the title if you had to name a winner, and he’s the slight favourite with bookmakers, but that assumes a pure clean race… and as we saw in Saudi Arabia, that’s no sure thing.

*Technically that’s not completely true – Hamilton could beat Verstappen while both finish outside of the points, meaning Verstappen wins on the tiebreaker; or if Hamilton finished ninth while Verstappen finished tenth with the fastest lap, they’d again tie.

Lewis beats Verstappen in dramatic race | 02:18

WHO HAS THE EDGE HEADING INTO ABU DHABI?

Verstappen has the natural advantage of leading in the standings.

What exactly do we mean by that? Well, the 1989, 1990, 1994 and 1997 crowns were all decided when the two leaders crashed out in the final race; if both the Dutchman and Brit crash out in Abu Dhabi, Verstappen will be champion.

“If it was to come to the scenario of the last race in Abu Dhabi and they were to be racing each other for the title, whoever is in front (on points) is absolutely going to try to do the same as in the Senna-Prost years,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said last month.

“What happened in Monza? Verstappen took Lewis out because he was about to overtake and he was quicker. And that is totally understandable.

“If you are racing for the championship and you see it fading away because the other guy is overtaking you, what tool have you got other than the one that makes sure he can’t overtake? We’ve seen it with Schumacher and Villeneuve, we saw it with Senna and Prost twice.

“I would never give the instruction to crash into anyone else but if they go to that last race and whoever is in front wins the championship, they will be racing each other, hard.

“And I don’t think you can control it, Hamilton and Verstappen, I don’t think you want to control it because they are the gladiators in their machines. That is what makes this sport so interesting, because it is ingrained in our nature that we don’t like confrontation and then one is intrigued to see how that relationship unfolds.

“If they crash are they going to confront each other? What are they going to say? Will they look in each others’ eyes? We would not interfere. The relationship is sorted out between the individuals.”

WHAT HAPPENS IF VERSTAPPEN AND HAMILTON TIE ON POINTS?

Verstappen will be crowned world champion, because he has won one more race (nine to eight); they cannot tie on points with Hamilton also winning the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

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WHAT ABOUT THE CONSTRUCTORS’ TITLE?

Mercedes already had a handy lead in its bid to win an eighth consecutive constructors’ crown; and then Sergio Perez crashed out in Saudi Arabia.

The ex-Racing Point driver’s up-and-down season, compared to Valtteri Bottas’ steady year – including nine third-place finishes – has been the difference in the race between the Silver Arrows and Red Bull.

On 587.5 points, Mercedes is a full race win ahead of its nearest rival (559.5 points).

Realistically Red Bull needs a 1-2 finish in Abu Dhabi while one of Hamilton or Bottas crashes out to win the constructors’ title.

Current constructors’ standings

1. Mercedes – 587.5 pts

2. Red Bull – 559.5 pts

3. Ferrari – 307.5 pts

4. McLaren – 269 pts

5. Alpine – 149 pts

6. Alpha Tauri – 120 pts

7. Aston Martin – 77 pts

8. Williams – 23 pts

9. Alfa Romeo – 13 pts

10. Haas – 0 pts

WHO WILL BE BEST OF THE REST?

Daniel Ricciardo’s debut season in a McLaren hasn’t exactly gone to plan, with the Australian almost certain to finish eighth, well down on his fifth in 2020 – which he achieved in the fifth-best car on the grid.

He upgraded moving from Renault (now Alpine) to the British outfit but when the McLaren car was at its best, in the first half of the season, Ricciardo was still getting used to it.

He peaked with that stunning win at Monza, with teammate Lando Norris completing a stellar 1-2, but ironically ever since the Italian Grand Prix it’s been Ferrari as the third-best constructor.

Charles Leclerc (158 points), Norris (154 points) and Carlos Sainz (149.5 points) are scrapping it out for fifth place in the drivers’ standings; the Ferraris have both finished above Norris in each of the last five races.

The rest of the field, in both the drivers’ and constructors’ standings, is relatively spread out.

Current drivers’ standings (Midfield)

5. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) – 158 pts

6. Lando Norris (McLaren) – 154 pts

7. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) – 149.5 pts

8. Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) – 115 pts

9. Pierre Gasly (Alpha Tauri) – 100 pts

10. Fernando Alonso (Alpine) – 77 pts

11. Esteban Ocon (Alpine) – 72 pts

12. Sebastian Vettel (Aston Martin) – 43 pts

13. Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) – 34 pts

14. Yuki Tsunoda (Alpha Tauri) – 20 pts

Esteban Ocon nearly gave Alpine back-to-back podiums on Monday, but was pipped on the line by Bottas; however the hefty points on offer for fourth mean the Hungary race-winner is closing in on teammate Fernando Alonso for tenth.

The late surge by Ocon and Alonso has virtually sealed fifth place for Alpine, even though the Alpha Tauri when driven by Pierre Gasly has at times appeared the third-best car on the grid.

Unfortunately for the Red Bull junior side, Gasly’s brilliant qualifying hasn’t been matched on Sundays, with just one third-place (in Azerbaijan, when Verstappen, Hamilton and Bottas all missed the points).

His rookie teammate Yuki Tsunoda showed early promise with a ninth on debut in Bahrain, but has otherwise been well off the pace off the very impressive Gasly, with just five other points finishes this season and three retirements; only last-placer Nikita Mazepin has failed to finish more often.

Sebastian Vettel will actually beat his woeful 13th-placed finish from 2020 at Ferrari, as he’s almost certain to beat Lance Stroll at Aston Martin, with the peaks of a second-place in Azerbaijan and two fifths in Monaco and Belgium followed by way, way too many irrelevant back-of-the-midfield races.

If you’ll recall, at the start of the 2021 season there were aerodynamic changes which hurt ‘low rake’ cars like Mercedes and Aston Martin (given their car’s similarities to the Mercedes) the most. The former recovered; the latter hasn’t.

Of the last six full-time drivers in the standings, three will be elsewhere in 2022, all for different reasons.

Current drivers’ standings (At the back)

15. George Russell (Williams) – 16 pts

16. Kimi Raikkonen (Alfa Romeo) – 10 pts

17. Nicholas Latifi (Williams) – 7 pts

18. Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo) – 3 pts

19. Mick Schumacher (Haas) – 0 pts

20. Robert Kubica (Alfa Romeo fill-in) – 0 pts

21. Nikita Mazepin (Haas) – 0 pts

Hamilton and Verstappen collide! | 00:57

George Russell’s first F1 points, including that bizarre second at the aborted Belgian Grand Prix, will see him replacing Bottas at Mercedes with added confidence.

Alfa Romeo pair Kimi Raikkonen (retirement) and Antonio Giovinazzi (dumped to Formula E) surround Russell’s Williams teammate Nicholas Latifi, who’ll partner Alex Albon next season, in the standings.

Haas is set to match Williams (2020) and Marussia (2015) as the only teams in the last seven seasons to fail to score a point, with Mick Schumacher at least showing some promise.

Nikita Mazepin must finish 15th or better in Abu Dhabi to avoid finishing 21st and dead last, behind Robert Kubica who replaced Kimi Raikkonen for two races in the middle of the season.

The Russian was 14th in Azerbaijan – essentially by default, with four non-finishers, the heavily-penalised Nicholas Latifi and poor restarter Lewis Hamilton behind him – but otherwise hasn’t finished higher than 17th.

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Saudi Arabia Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen, championship race, leaderboard, crash, reaction

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Lewis Hamilton edged out Max Verstappen to win a chaotic and controversial Saudi Arabian Grand Prix that had the F1 world divided on Monday morning.

There were a number of flashpoints during the race that only intensified the ongoing tension between Hamilton and Verstappen, who are now level on points ahead of the decider.

Hamilton had sped away from pole position before the balance of power shifted after 10 laps when Mick Schumacher buried his Haas in a barrier.

Hamilton and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas pitted under the safety car but Verstappen stayed out.

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‘I didn’t understand what was going on’ | 01:27

Four laps later, the race was red-flagged to allow the barriers to be repaired which enabled Verstappen to pit, change tyres and resume the race in the lead.

On the restart, Hamilton reclaimed the lead but claimed he was forced off the track by Verstappen.

Moments later there was another red flag as Sergio Perez, George Russell and Nikita Mazepin all collided at the rear of the field.

The stewards decided that Verstappen’s manoeuvre was illegal and promoted Alpine’s Esteban Ocon to pole for the third start of the race, with Hamilton in second and Verstappen in third.

Amazingly, Verstappen then took the lead again with Hamilton following through.

However the drama and controversy continued when they collided late in the race. Hamilton said he had been brake-tested and Verstappen was penalised by the stewards before the Briton swept past and onto victory.

“It has been a dirty race in terms of tactics,” Martin Brundle said on Sky Sports F1.

“This is absolutely crazy. It’s kind of like we’re making it up as we go along.

“But it’s so many unusual situations. It’s more like an obstacle course than a race track.”

The F1 world was just as stunned by what unfolded on Monday, with the constant chaos proving hard to keep up with.

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Lewis Hamilton slams Max Verstappen, Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, reaction, quotes, result

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Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton lashed out at title rival Max Verstappen after Sunday’s gripping Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, describing the Dutchman as “over the limit”.

Mercedes driver Hamilton won a dramatic race under lights on the Jeddah street circuit but only after several close run-ins with Red Bull’s Verstappen.

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“I really had to try and keep my cool out there which was really difficult to do,” said Hamilton.

“I have raced a lot of drivers in my 28 years of racing, I have come across a lot of characters. There’s a few that are over the limit, the rules don’t apply.

“He (Verstappen)’s over the limit for sure. I have avoided collision on so many occasions with the guy.

“I don’t mind being the one who does that because you get to live another day. It doesn’t matter for him if we don’t finish. It does for me.”

‘Rules don’t apply’ – Lewis RIPS Max | 01:03

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The tense battle culminated in a late collision when Hamilton, apparently unaware that Verstappen had been ordered to give up the lead after an illegal manoeuvre shortly before, hit the Red Bull as it braked in front of him.

Red Bull maintained that Verstappen was simply following instructions while Mercedes intimated that the Dutchman was ‘brake-testing’.

“I don’t understand why he hit the brakes quite so heavily so I ran into the back of him,” said Hamilton.

“I didn’t get the information. It was very confusing.”

Did Lewis intentionally hit Verstappen? | 01:50

A visibly annoyed Verstappen, however, denied any wrong-doing in the incident. “I slowed down, I wanted to let him by, I was on the right but he didn’t want to overtake and we touched,” said Verstappen.

“I don’t really understand what happened there.” Stewards, who gave Verstappen a five-second penalty for an earlier incident, were investigating the decision.

“It was quite eventful! A lot of things happened, which I don’t fully agree with, but it is what it is,” said the 24-year-old Dutchman.

‘I didn’t understand what was going on’ | 01:27

He later stormed off the podium, refusing to take part in the traditional end of race champagne spraying with Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas who took third.

The two drivers are now level on points as they head to the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi next weekend, although Verstappen has the advantage of having won more races.

“It’s a straight fight as it has been all year,” said Red Bull principal Christian Horner.

“The form is with Mercedes but Max has fought like a lion this weekend, he has given it everything.”

Hamilton has now won three races on the bounce and is primed to become the first man to win eight world titles, one more than the record he currently shares with Michael Schumacher.

“I am personally chilled,” he said. “I feel like I am in the boxing ring and I am ready to go.”

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