Report mark: 8.9
At the first race in Bahrain it already becomes clear that 2021 could be a different year than the seven previous ones. Red Bull is off to a flying start for once, as the problems with the rear of the car last year – Max Verstappen and Alexander Albon struggled with an unstable rear in 2020 – have been resolved for this year. In addition, Mercedes is having a harder time at the start of the season than before due to some new rules regarding the floor; these appear to be more at a disadvantage of the teams that drive with a low rake, including Mercedes, than of the teams that have opted for a high rake, such as Red Bull.
The flying start is partly thanks to engine partner Honda, who decided to bring the introduction of a completely new power source a year forward after the decision to withdraw from Formula 1 at the end of 2021. In terms of power, the new Honda engine is hardly inferior to that of Mercedes and is also extremely reliable. Verstappen would have had enough with three engines to make it to the end of the season, were it not for the loss of one in the hard crash at Silverstone. In comparison: Valtteri Bottas is running no fewer than six Mercedes engines this year. Honda thus makes a crucial contribution to Red Bull’s ultimate shot at the championship and with that the last Formula 1 adventure of the Japanese car manufacturer, which had a particularly rough start at McLaren six years ago, still has the dreamed end.
Strong off the starting blocks
The above means that Max Verstappen can compete for Grand Prix victories right from the first race, while victories in other years usually only come into view somewhere during the second half of the season. The pole position for the season overture in Bahrain is a sign on the wall in that regard, although Mercedes has tactically the upper hand in the race. Verstappen is second after all the pit stops, but makes it very exciting at the end of the race by closing the gap with Hamilton completely. With four laps to go there is an attempt to overtake for the lead, only Verstappen goes outside the white lines so that he has to return the first position to Hamilton shortly afterwards. However, with that fight in the final phase of the Bahrain Grand Prix, the tone has been set for the 2021 Formula 1 season.
Verstappen immediately senses that he has a car with which he can build something beautiful and seems to act accordingly in the races. Hamilton immediately seems to realize that an eighth world title is quite a challenge and regularly makes a nervous impression over the on-board radio. Mercedes is under pressure and during the second race in Imola it already seems to crack at the formation that has dominated Formula 1 since the start of the hybrid era in 2014. Lewis Hamilton slides off the track after a wet opening phase and ends up in the gravel, after which he has to fight hard to finish second. Valtteri Bottas is not yet in a dent in a pack of butter and is ninth when he crashes out of the race at high speed together with his successor George Russell, who hopes to overtake the Mercedes with his Williams.
In Monaco, a place where Verstappen did not have his most glorious moments in the past, the Limburger seems to grab pole position, until local hero Charles Leclerc decides to park his car in the crash barrier. The Ferrari driver has the fastest time at that moment and can therefore start from pole, but on Sunday it becomes clear during the laps to the grid that the gearbox has suffered damage, leaving Verstappen with an empty first starting spot. A dominant victory follows, after which a Dutchman takes the lead of the World Cup for the first time in Formula 1 history.
In the streets of Baku, Verstappen seems to be able to make an important hit, but a blowout on the long straight throws a spanner in the works just before the end. Hamilton, however, does not benefit. At the restart, his brake balance is still wrong, so he shoots straight at the first corner and finishes outside the points. That Verstappen is a serious candidate for the world title this year, however, becomes clear with three consecutive victories in the GPs of France, Styria and Austria. During the first round at Silverstone there is the famous clash with Hamilton, which definitively erupts the title fight, and in Hungary Bottas ensures with a capital braking error at the first corner that Verstappen has to drive the entire race with half a floor, leaving it no more than ninth place.
Mercedes comes back, decision in extremis
After the summer break, Verstappen starts the second half of the season energetically. In Belgium, after a soaking afternoon, he can add 12.5 points to the win and in Zandvoort he records a great home win under the watchful eye of the entire nation. But Mercedes manages to take another step with the car, which makes the balance of power seem to be tilting again. In America, Verstappen still beats Hamilton on strategy, with which Red Bull shows that it can also compete with Mercedes in that area, and in Mexico a lightning start provides Verstappen with the full loot. In Brazil, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, however, Hamilton is unstoppable, so that both ruffs travel to Abu Dhabi with the same number of points for the all-deciding final race. At the Yas Marina Circuit, Hamilton initially seems on his way to victory and with it the title, but with the help of a late safety car phase it is still Verstappen who takes the championship in spectacular fashion.
After a long and grueling season, in which team bosses Christian Horner and Toto Wolff also provide the necessary fireworks off the track, Red Bull takes a driver’s title for the first time since 2013. Helmut Marko recently called Verstappen’s championship “Red Bull Racing’s greatest sporting achievement to date”. “Max Verstappen and us as a team had to compete with multi-winner Mercedes after seven years of complete dominance in the hybrid era. That has been accompanied by an insane amount of ups and downs,” the Red Bull adviser summed up the season Motorsport.com together. “Honestly, we went into the last race with a lot more excitement and a lot more nervousness than ever before. Especially because we knew: ‘Now it’s going to be hit or miss in Abu Dhabi’. In that respect, this title has been much harder fought than any of our previous successes.” The editors of Motorsport.com Netherlands rated Red Bull’s season with an 8.9, the highest mark of any team in 2021 and half a point higher than Mercedes got.