Red Bull takes the fight to Mercedes - with brain not brawn

At the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix, Max Verstappen took the win ahead of Lewis Hamilton. At the Spanish GP one week later, the six-time champion was back in front.

Red Bull driver Max Verstappen lifts the trophy after taking first place in the 70th Anniversary Formula One Grand Prix at Silverstone. The Dutch 22-year-old, who jumped from fourth to third at the start, was rather unambiguous in conversation with his team on the radio in the opening third of the race: “This is the only chance to get close to Mercedes. I am not sitting behind like a grandma.”   -  AP

It is fitting that the man to finally break Mercedes’ choke hold on the 2020 Formula One season comes from a coterie of young drivers who promise a bright future for the sport, and it is perhaps made more fitting by the fact that Max Verstappen did so at Silverstone in a race marking the 70th anniversary of the iconic track hosting the first-ever round of the World Championship.

Mercedes had won the first four races of the season, six-time world champion taking the previous three (including the first race of the Silverstone double-header) after Valtteri Bottas had won from flag to finish in the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix.

At the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix, Red Bull finally brought the fight to Mercedes, not with brawn but with brains. There was no way the Austrian outfit was going to challenge the powerful Silver Arrows in terms of speed or downforce — and the status quo seems likely to remain in place for the rest of the season — so it all came down to strategy.

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At the British Grand Prix the previous Sunday, the Mercedes cars had seemed unbeatable till the end of the race, when rapid tyre deterioration derailed Bottas’ race (necessitating a pit stop and dropping him from second to out of the points) and led to Hamilton nursing his car across the finish line on three wheels, albeit still in first place. The win could have been Verstappen’s had he not been called in for fresh tyres on the penultimate lap, though Red Bull team principal Christian Horner later said there was no guarantee the Dutchman would have made it to the chequered flag on his old tyres.

With tyre supplier Pirelli picking softer compounds for 70th Anniversary Grand Prix than the previous race, Mercedes’ strength was anything but that. The cars’ raw power and downforce ran the tyres ragged. Red Bull seems to have pre-empted that and the Austrian team had Verstappen start the race on the harder compound. The Dutch 22-year-old, who jumped from fourth to third at the start, was rather unambiguous in conversation with his team on the radio in the opening third of the race: “This is the only chance to get close to Mercedes. I am not sitting behind like a grandma.”

The Mercedes cars pitted earlier than Verstappen, and the Red Bull driver built a comfortable 20-second lead before he had to come in for new tyres. He rejoined right behind race leader Bottas and soon made it past the Finn on the outside of Luffield.

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Hamilton, meanwhile, attempted to make it to the chequered flag — and win the race — on a one-stopper as Verstappen and Bottas both pitted for a second time, but the Brit — who’s chasing a record-equalling seven drivers’ title this season — had to come in from the lead on lap 42 and dropped to fourth. He made quick work of the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc to take third and then swept past his teammate for the second step of the podium, but Verstappen was too far ahead, the Red Bull driver finishing more than 11 seconds in front and taking second place in the drivers’ championship standings from Bottas.

Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton celebrates on the podium with second-placed Max Verstappen of Red Bull and third placed Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas at the Spanish Grand Prix.   -  Reuters


Status quo restored

The Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya — the site of Verstappen’s first F1 race win four seasons ago — saw Mercedes re-establish its dominance with another front-row lockout in qualifying.

There were concerns about the effect the heat in Barcelona could have on the tyres, but with the return of the harder compounds, Hamilton was able to deliver another domineering win from start to finish — and break another record in the process. He now has 156 podium finishes from 256 race starts, moving ahead of Michael Schumacher, who has one less from 306 starts.

After the race, Hamilton described his win as one of his best drives ever, and team principal Toto Wolff lauded his “special” driver. But the victory underscored the strength of the Mercedes cars possibly more than it did the talent of its lead driver.

That Verstappen finished second ahead of the second Mercedes of Bottas is testament to the fact that the Dutchman is punching above his car’s weight, so to say. In the second Red Bull, Alex Albon is competing with the best of the rest — the Racing Points, McLarens and Ferraris.

Verstappen took second from Bottas on the start and held on to the position through two rounds of pit stops till the end of the race. Bottas, meanwhile, pitted on the penultimate lap for new tyres and took the extra point for fastest lap on his final circuit of the track.

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Three-horse race, maybe

After the first six races of the 2020 F1 season, Hamilton, on 132, has a sizeable 37-point lead over Verstappen, who is a further six ahead of Bottas. The three of them have taken all but three of the 18 podium spots so far. Hamilton sits on 88 race wins, just three shy of Schumacher’s all-time record, which he will likely break this year if current form is anything to go by. Verstappen and Bottas too have a shot at winning the drivers’ title this year, but the odds on them seem rather long at this point.

Lower down the order, Racing Point and McLaren have markedly improved this season, and they are in a race for third place in the constructors’ championship with Ferrari, whose only bright spots so far this year have been Leclerc’s two surprise podium finishes.