Red Bull is likely to hold a performance advantage over Mercedes at next weekend’s opening round of the Formula One season, according to senior engineers from the reigning champions.
Mercedes struggled for performance throughout last weekend’s test at the Bahrain International Circuit, which will also host the first race of 2021, with Lewis Hamilton’s fastest lap over a second off Max Verstappen’s best time in the Red Bull.
A number of variables, such as fuel loads and engine settings, may have skewed the competitive order during the test, but after seven years dominating the sport Mercedes is preparing for a closer battle this season.
“I would say Red Bull are ahead on performance, they are the class act from the test, but it is a test, it is not a race and it is one event out of 23,” Mercedes head of strategy James Vowles said.
“Are we going to have a close season? I would say so.
“Red Bull are a fierce adversary, they’ve got a strong package and clearly came out of the box very, very quick.
“The result of that is across the season and across different types of track layouts, I am sure you will see us move forwards and backwards relative to them but I don’t believe we are going into this particularly finding all the performance that is missing or being ahead of them.
“So, in short: yeah, I think we are going to have a close championship this year.”
Onboard footage from the Mercedes cockpit showed the drivers working hard to correct slides in the new W12, and car’s cornering instability was highlighted as its main weakness following the three days of testing.
“It was pretty evident from that, that the car was handling poorly and conversely the Red Bull in fact looked what we would call planted, but it was a very stable car especially through the last sector of the lap,” Vowles added.
“And I think that’s a fair observation, it was visible to the outside and I would say the lap times mirrored that as well.
“But it’s also fair to say that we don’t have answers as we are sat here now, it is just 24 hours after the end of the test.
“Huge amounts of data available to us and now a long journey ahead to try and understand what was causing that.”
Director of trackside engineering, Andrew Shovlin, said the track conditions contributed to the problems Mercedes faced, but admitted that they appeared to impact the W12 more than other cars.
“The wind made it tricky,” Shovlin said. “When the wind is behind the car you lose a lot of downforce because effectively the air speed is reduced so some corners where the wind was behind, it was prone to doing that, and then also the tyres are quite easy to overheat on that circuit and if you start sliding, you tend to lose grip and it gets worse. So, there are a few problems.
“Now, importantly we could see that some of our competitors weren’t struggling in the same way as us, so we need to put quite a focus on understanding why the rear end was a bit weak, how we can get it more stable and predictable and that work is going on now.
“Hopefully when we get to the race weekend it won’t be so difficult for the drivers because they were having to work pretty hard to do the lap times that they were doing.”