United States GP: Mark Hughes on whether or not Mercedes have decisively stolen a march over Red Bull
It's a compelling world title fight, but are Red Bull right to be concerned about Mercedes' apparent recent pace advantage? Mark Hughes analyses the balance of power between the big two and what it might mean for one of F1's biggest events this weekend, live on Sky Sports F1
Last Updated: 21/10/21 7:45pm
As we head for Austin, Red Bull are concerned about Mercedes' recent edge in performance and Mercedes are concerned about their own power unit (PU) reliability.
There is some ambiguity about both elements. Are Mercedes now satisfied that the fourth PU Lewis Hamilton took in Turkey will give enough engine mileage within the pool to see him through the next six events? In terms of pace, while it is undeniable Mercedes have made gains over the rest of the field since their Silverstone upgrade, is it now definitely a faster car than the Red Bull on all types of track?
Certainly, Max Verstappen was concerned about his inability to match the pace of Valtteri Bottas' Merc in either qualifying or race in Istanbul, saying, "We have been at tracks that naturally were a bit better for Mercedes but then this track was a bit unknown and clearly they were ahead of us. I do think we need to step it up a bit to be in the fight until the end of the season."
But the Red Bull was not in best form there, as the much higher-than-forecast track grip created an understeer problem which the team were reluctant to cure by using less rear wing, as that would have increased the already high rear-tyre degradation which troubled everyone on race day.
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It had been a similar story in Hungary when the Red Bull could not be balanced around its high-downforce rear wing on the extreme track temperatures seen there.
If we look at the post-Silverstone races, the Red Bull was out of its sweet spot at the Hungaroring, at Spa we didn't get to see the full competitive picture play out because of the non-race. Zandvoort was expected to favour Red Bull's higher downforce and did.
Monza was expected to suit Mercedes' lower drag - and did. In Sochi, Verstappen didn't do a qualifying lap and chose a wing level to help get him through the pack from the back of the grid rather than deliver the best all-out lap time.
So Istanbul should have been the track to give a clear answer about how the pace of the two cars compares since the Merc's Silverstone upgrade. There was nothing about its layout which suggested it should favour either car over the other - but Bottas was dominant. Hence Verstappen's concerns.
But, as recounted, that wasn't a representative Red Bull performance. How do we know this? By excluding Mercedes and comparing the RB16B's advantage over the rest of the field at Istanbul to the average through the season. That gives the following:
Average qualifying advantage over all non-Mercedes field pre-Istanbul: 1.41%
Qualifying advantage over all non-Mercedes field at Istanbul: 0.566%
Breaking it down against leading individual non-Mercedes teams it looks like this:
Average qualifying speed advantage over Ferrari pre-Istanbul: 0.65%
Qualifying speed advantage over Ferrari at Istanbul: 0.1%
Average qualifying speed advantage over AlphaTauri pre-Istanbul: 0.8%
Qualifying speed advantage over AlphaTauri at Istanbul: 0.1%
Average qualifying speed advantage over Alpine pre-Istanbul: 1.2%
Qualifying speed advantage over Alpine at Istanbul: 0.3%
Only the similarly troubled McLaren failed to make big gains on Red Bull at Istanbul.
The rest all did.
It's highly unlikely that every one of those teams improved their cars by such a big amount simultaneously coming into this race. Which just confirms that the Red Bull's balance problems saw it lose ground to the field. "We never seemed to nail the balance all weekend, just couldn't get it to work like we wanted to," explained Verstappen after qualifying.
In which case, a Mercedes performance advantage there was only to be expected.
The Mercedes is, without question, faster relative to the field than before Silverstone - and again this can be measured by qualifying times.
Comparing pre to post-Silverstone Mercedes pulled out an extra 0.49 per cent of qualifying pace over the top six rival teams - which in F1 terms is a lot. The W12 received a big aerodynamic upgrade at Silverstone which seems to have made the car even more aerodynamically efficient. Red Bull remain convinced Mercedes have also found a power boost since that time, something which Mercedes deny. Whatever combination of those two it is, the effect has been potent.
But at 0.29 per cent, Mercedes' gain over Red Bull post-Silverstone is smaller than over the rest of the field - despite the aforementioned Red Bull problems. So Red Bull too has become faster relative to the rest of the field since Silverstone, despite the Hungary and Turkey problems, as the team have continued to develop the car.
Which frames the question of how much was Istanbul about Red Bull not extracting the full potential from their car and how much from any inherent Mercedes advantage? That's a question we should begin to see answered this weekend at the Circuit of the Americas, which has a good balance of demands for the lower-drag Mercedes and higher-downforce Red Bull.
Historically it's a race which has been dominated by Mercedes but historically Red Bull haven't been able to turn up with a car as competitive as this year's RB16B.
Verstappen is surely right to be concerned, but the Mercedes advantage seen in Turkey is by no means certain to be repeated.