Lusail, Qatar – Momentum is a fickle force at this stage of the Formula 1 World Championship.
It’s two weeks back to Monday after the Mexican’s massive momentum promised to carry Max Verstappen to his first Formula One title. Back in the day, he has swung behind Lewis Hamilton after two dominant wins in Brazil and Qatar and looks set for a record-breaking eighth world championship.
In truth, the 2021 title battle is at stake. With two races remaining, Verstappen leads Hamilton by eight points in the standings after having received 11 in the last two races. If the current format proves correct, Hamilton will win the title. If he swings a bit more in Saudi Arabia or Abu Dhabi, he’ll be in Verstappen.
There is no doubt that the last two races in Brazil and Qatar fit in with Hamilton’s Mercedes. So much so that Verstappen’s Red Bull performance seemed unrecognizable from one week in Mexico to another in Brazil.
Such dramatic fluctuations in performance associated with such massive results in the tournament inevitably lead to suspicion and accusations. Both are a natural – and unfortunate – byproduct of a competitive title race, and have only been amplified in recent weeks by the intensity of holding three consecutive races on weekends across three different continents.
In Qatar, where they capped the hat-trick with Hamilton’s victory, Red Bull Verstappen’s team undoubtedly wobbled. From a points perspective, the weekend was a relative success, with Verstappen reducing the loss to Hamilton in the drivers’ championship with second place while Red Bull closed the gap to Mercedes by five points. But off the track, the battle cries coming from the Red Bull Camp sounded increasingly desperate.
The war of words between team leaders Christian Horner and Toto Wolff provided an all-consuming subplot for the 2021 season, but it was also an insight into the confidence each team had at any given time. Hearts are worn on the sleeves alongside Swiss watches and Formula 1’s tech sponsors, and it’s common for emotions to overflow. In Qatar, the boss fight has reached a new level, leaving Red Bull looking wounded but utterly undefeated.
Horner claimed an early victory in the weekend’s race when the FIA on Friday rejected Mercedes’ request to review an incident between Verstappen and Hamilton in Brazil. The two drivers went into Turn 4 on lap 48 of the São Paulo Grand Prix, only for Verstappen to let the brakes go too late and force Hamilton to widen.
Horner correctly predicted that the Mercedes accident review case would not meet the requirements set by the FIA. The new evidence, in the form of previously unseen footage from Verstappen’s onboard camera, was not deemed “significant” enough to reopen the case, meaning the move was a “racing accident”.
The timing of Horner’s acquittal couldn’t be sweeter for Red Bull, as the hosts’ decision fell midway through a televised press conference in which he sat alongside Wolff. The Mercedes guy tried to ignore it, but that was an early win for Horner.
However, the Red Bull boss was intent on shifting the focus away from his driver’s actions in Brazil and towards the legitimacy of the Mercedes. Convinced that Hamilton had the straight-line speed advantage from the rear wing cornering in Sao Paulo, Horner took the opportunity to point out the “score” marks on the Mercedes’ rear panels from the inside.
Red Bull’s theory was that these markings were the result of flexing of the main plane of the rear wing under aerodynamic load, which in turn reduces drag and increases top speed and explains Hamilton’s apparent speed advantage in Brazil. It was a serious accusation because a flexible bodywork that could be construed as a moving aerodynamic device is prohibited under F1 regulations. Wolff responded the next day by saying Horner was “haunting ghosts”, but the comments were enough to raise doubts about Mercedes’ legitimacy in preparing for the race.
On Saturday evening, the wing passed a deflection test given by the FIA as part of a “fact-finding” mission for next year’s regulations. The flexible chassis structure is likely to be a major battleground under the all-new Formula 1 regulations for 2022, and the test entry in Qatar, which includes more stringent load testing on the main aft wing aircraft, has doubled down on Red Bull’s accusations. .
In addition to passing the test, detailed images from the alternate corners of the Mercedes’ rear wing indicated that the visible scuff marks might in fact be a different weave of carbon fiber in the construction of the final panel. Two different textures on the end board where the main plane meets it, under certain light and at certain angles, can look like marks on the carbon fiber surface.
On race day, Horner was convinced that the speed differential between Mercedes and Red Bull was back in line with expectations, even though Red Bull were still short of around 8 km/h from Mercedes. Red Bull had their own rear wing problems in Qatar during training when the DRS’s rear wing flap wobbled when open. The problem was noted on a number of previous rounds during practice sessions, but instead of fixing the wing as in the past, Red Bull outfitted a larger wing with more drag and downforce in Qatar to qualify and race.
The Red Bull wing-specification exchange led to a slight skew in the image on the outside, but after two days of claiming Mercedes’ rear wing was suspicious, Horner changed his tune on Sunday night.
“I believe that it is now well controlled and that the tests that have been introduced should eliminate any ability to sail [the rules]Horner said. I think what we saw in the last races [before Qatar] It was a significant increase in straight line speed.
“Toto did his best to point out that they gained straight line speed but nothing has changed, so it’s encouraging that this is the first race since before Silverstone that we’ve been able to match them with straight line speed and, like I said, it’s been exponential in recent races.”
Mercedes maintained throughout the weekend in Brazil that any straight-line speed gain came from introducing a new engine rather than any trick in the rear wing. Hamilton earned a five-place penalty at Interlagos for introducing the new engine into its range of usable engines for the rest of the year, but in Qatar Mercedes decided to use an older, less powerful unit. Andrew Shovlin, chief track engineer, said the new engine would return to Saudi Arabia.
“There are two engines we are racing, and here [in Qatar] “We had the less powerful of the two in the car, given the nature of the circuit,” said Schuvelin. “If we look at the track in Saudi, I think it should suit us – for Lewis we have the most powerful engine to go in the car, so that should give him a useful boost.”
We may never know if there is any truth to Horner’s accusations about Mercedes’ rear wing, but the balance of evidence seems to suggest they were misplaced. If Mercedes regains the straight-speed advantage in Saudi Arabia, it could re-emerge, but Mercedes will undoubtedly signal the return of the new engine.
Horner’s weekend could have ended there with a near-public accusation and he lost six points in the Drivers’ Championship. However, on Verstappen’s last lap in qualifying, the championship leader failed to keep an eye on the double-waving yellow flags at a guard point outside the last corner and was hit with a five-position penalty.
The penalty kick moved Red Bull from second on the grid, along with Hamilton in the front row, to seventh, behind Valtteri Bottas’ second Mercedes (who took a three-place penalty for ignoring the yellow flags waving alone). Horner argued against the decision, saying the flags were being waved by a “Marshall Marshall” who was operating at odds with the central crowd system, which did not show the track sector yellow in the team’s statements.
Singling out the marshal and suggesting that he acted incorrectly, when he was actually reacting to Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri stopping in front of him, didn’t sit well with the FIA. Race director Michael Massey referred Horner to the hosts, who summoned the Red Bull coach after the race and issued him a warning for violating the FIA’s International Sports Law. Horner has apologized to the marshal in question and offered to join the FIA’s management course next year as a peace offer. It was an embarrassing end to a tough weekend.
Asked on Sunday evening whether he regretted any of the events in Qatar, Horner said: “Not at all.”
“I believe in my team, I speak up and I’ve always acted like that. I’m not an overly emotional person and I don’t shout at the cameras.
“I think the way I behaved myself, I have no issues with and would do exactly the same. I think the only problem was with any guards and if there was any personal offense pointing out a rogue yellow flag that was not intended to target any individual or guards.
“I don’t know if you heard my interview this morning, but I didn’t think it was unreasonable.”
Say what you will about Horner, but he won’t back down. Red Bull barely covered itself in glory in Qatar, but Horner wouldn’t fall without a fight.
“It’s going to be tight,” he said. “It can be argued that the next track should favor Mercedes and Abu Dhabi, with the modifications that have been made [to the track] There who knows?
“We’ve gone around the world for the last three weekends, and we’ve pretty much finished where we started with a point difference. It’s so close, it’s incredibly close.
“Mercedes got a really fast car at the moment over the last weekend. In Mexico the pendulum was with us, there was nothing to choose between the two in Austin, and I’m happy to capitalize on the eight points in the next race.
“So we just have to do everything we can to maximize our chances. I think I said at the beginning of this tournament that it was coming to Abu Dhabi and I didn’t change my mind.”
Meanwhile, Mercedes is on the alert and determined to continue into the final race.
“I think I never stopped believing this was going, because we had such a strong race in Turkey before it clearly fell below our expectations in Austin and Mexico,” said Wolff. “Anyone on the team refuses to give up. I am grateful for how the championship has swung.
“If you had told me at the beginning of the year that we were going to be right fighting in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, I would have gone through it. I hope it goes to the end, and whoever wins deserves to win.”
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