This weekend’s British Grand Prix is the chance for Red Bull to deliver a potentially knockout blow. At Silverstone on Sunday Max Verstappen and his team could prove they have definitively turned the tables on Mercedes and the defending world champion, Lewis Hamilton.
It has been a long time coming but with all the pieces in place Red Bull are pursuing the Formula One world championship with steely determination. They have not won a title since the turbo-hybrid era began in 2014; Mercedes have won a record seven consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ championships since then, with Hamilton taking six alone. It has been a humbling experience for Red Bull not least because it came after they had enjoyed their own remarkable success with Sebastian Vettel, scoring four drivers’ and constructors’ doubles between 2000 and 2013.
Leading their charge in 2021 is one of F1’s brightest and most compelling talents in Verstappen. Verstappen is only 23 but in his first title tussle currently leads the 36-year-old Hamilton, aiming to win his eighth championship, by 32 points. He is the schwerpunkt of Red Bull’s attack and he and Hamilton have already reduced the title fight to a two-horse race.
The Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner, said that beating Mercedes at the French Grand Prix meant he believed they could beat them anywhere. But should Red Bull triumph at Silverstone, it will be the more definitive statement. Mercedes have been mighty here, with their car designed to take advantage of the high-speed corners that make the circuit such a glorious challenge.
Red Bull have proved their car on the high-downforce, twisting tracks of Monaco and Baku, and on the pace and downforce combination of Paul Ricard. Silverstone is the final piece of the jigsaw, a track where they have not taken pole since 2011 and not won since Mark Webber took the flag in 2012. A victory at their bete noire this weekend would resonate like no other.
Verstappen has long argued that if he had the machinery to compete he would deliver and on this form looks in every position to make good on his promise. The Dutchman is entirely comfortable with the daunting task of beating Hamilton in his own back yard. “It is more relaxing to know you come to a race track with a good car and fight for wins,” he said. “I am enjoying it, there is no stress because I know I can do the job with the car I have.”
Verstappen has five wins, and three second places, with a sixth victory in Baku probably denied only because of a tyre failure. It is a relentless consistency only too familiar to Hamilton, whose titles were based on the same attribute, while Horner is acutely aware what an asset Verstappen represents since he joined the team at 18 in 2016.
“He has brought a dynamic into the team, particularly now with the experience he has at the ripe old age of 23,” Horner said. “He deserves a car and engine that we have finally been able to provide to go and challenge Mercedes, and he is relishing that. That’s all he cares about, that’s all he wants to do.”
The race package Verstappen has is formidable. The Honda engine, originally designed to be introduced in 2022 but brought forward because the manufacturer is leaving the sport at the end of this season, is the best they have produced. Smaller and more powerful, its pedigree is clear, confirmed by the equally impressive improvement at their sister team, AlphaTauri.
Equally their chassis, a development of last year’s model by the chief technical officer, Adrian Newey, has solved the twitchy unpredictable nature of 2020’s car. Newey has adapted it superbly to the regulation changes to reduce downforce, with the rear of the car planted through the corners to the delight of drivers. They have been able to adjust their rear wing to reduce drag while maintaining grip, delivering a top speed on the straights that Mercedes have been unable to match. Their ride is also easier on the tyres than their rivals giving them options to manage the race in their favour.
Red Bull had developed last year’s car right up until the final race of the season at Abu Dhabi – which Verstappen won – while Mercedes ceased working on their car at the Belgian GP. Red Bull have carried their development work into this year, where Mercedes have admitted their main focus is already on the car they must build for the new regulations for next season. Their resources have largely shifted to 2022 while Red Bull continue developing this year’s model fiercely. Horner remains adamant they are not doing so at the expense of next season’s model and it is giving his team a genuine advantage.
Beyond the machinery, the team have also been hitting their marks at every level. Bringing in Sergio Pérez to partner Verstappen has finally given the Dutchman a wingman at the sharp end, allowing the team strategic options and putting real pressure on Mercedes who have long enjoyed the comfort of a one-two driver domination at the front.
Red Bull have embraced this, exemplified by their bold strategy call at the French Grand Prix. They had Verstappen undercut Hamilton, then pitted him again from where he caught and passed the world champion making up an 18-second gap in 20 laps. Crucially it was a strategy they could adopt because Pérez was covering off the one-stop option. It was an aggressive call that left Mercedes with no response.
The pressure they are applying seems to be beginning to tell. Hamilton has made two uncharacteristic unforced errors at Imola and Baku. He knows he is in a fight and if the upgrades Mercedes bring this weekend do not lift them to match Red Bull his task will be formidable.
In 2009, when his team scored their first win at the Chinese GP Horner delighted in that first triumph. The trophy was broken, missing one of its handles but it didn’t matter, it heralded the hope of more.
“I remember the feeling of getting on the aeroplane still smelling of champagne,” he said. “Just thinking that this moment has been so special, going back a Formula One winner, and that we’d need to feel this more times in our careers.”
They would indeed experience it again repeatedly but perhaps few victories will be as savoured as those this season after years in the wilderness. On current form more is to come but Verstappen is leaving nothing to chance. “Every single weekend we need to be on top of what we are doing to make these results happen, you cannot relax and sit back.” he said. At Silverstone he hopes the dedication will deliver notice: Red Bull are back.