Formula 1: Red Bull already playing mind games?

Sergio Perez, Red Bull, Formula 1 (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images for Red Bull Racing)
Sergio Perez, Red Bull, Formula 1 (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images for Red Bull Racing) /

It was a big week for Red Bull with the launch of their 2021 Formula 1 challenger, the RB16B, and new driver Sergio Perez driving for the team for the first time. Yet even before the engines rev up for testing, it seems the mind games have already begun…

On Tuesday, February 23, Red Bull released pictures of the car they hope can take the fight to Mercedes in the 2021 Formula 1 season.

It was also the same day new driver Sergio Perez got to drive a Red Bull car for the first time. He drove the 2019-spec car before a filming day with the new car on Wednesday, February 24 at Silverstone Circuit.

Speaking after climbing out of the 2019-spec car, Perez is reported to have said he felt “it was a dream come true” to see his name on the car. So far, so good. And then came the filming day…

In terms of the mind games, let’s start with the team themselves.

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Max Verstappen and Perez each got to drive the RB16B for the very first time on a 100-kilometer filming day. But instead of releasing the very first images of the RB16B on the track, the team opted to share 76 images of the 2019-spec car being driven around by Verstappen, Perez and Alexander Albon…

In the technical world of Formula 1, it’s sent tongues wagging as to what the differences to the 2020 car, the RB16, actually look like. Although press pictures were released on Tuesday, that’s all Red Bull have released of their new car, and they weren’t exactly the most detailed.

Teams are usually very covert when releasing details and images of their cars for the season at launch, but to not post any of the new car from testing day?

With Red Bull being a team that pride themselves on the quality of their chassis, do they have something to hide? Are they about to reveal something groundbreaking? Could it be something along the lines of a DAS system like we’ve seen on the Mercedes, or is it something completely new? Is it all a bluff to keep other teams guessing until testing?

In short, only Red Bull themselves know. It seems they’re very keen for their rivals to not know what changes they’ve made.

And arguably, it’s not just the team that are after a psychological edge at this point.

An intriguing subplot of the 2021 season will be how Perez performs against Verstappen. Each driver trying to get one over the other could be interpreted with their reactions to the RB16B after the shakedown on Wednesday.

Perez said the car has “good potential” heading into the new season, and he could feel how much more grip the car had compared to other cars he has driven in the past. He also said he is looking forward to getting as comfortable as possible with it before being “ready to kick some a**.” It was a glowing report oozing with enthusiasm from the new driver.

For Verstappen? He said it was not possible to read anything into the performance because the car is on demonstration tires, which are different to those the drivers will compete on, and the real work will start when testing begins in Bahrain.

He also said to the official Formula 1 website that he wants to “stay low key and focus on the job”. It was a stark contrast to Perez’s outlook, it would seem.

Could this all be to do with Perez now being at the very sharp end of the grid for the first time? Will he perform even better with the additional performance now at his disposal? Is this a warning shot that he might like the RB16B more than Verstappen? Has Verstappen downplayed the performance to show he is more comfortable competing at this level?

That said, Verstappen’s dampened enthusiasm could be something to do with a performance clause in his contract.

Dr. Helmut Marko, Red Bull’s motorsport advisor, told F1 Insider the following:

"“There is a performance clause. I don’t want to go into details, but it more or less says that Max can compete for race wins and the world championship on his own merits. If he can do that, his contract is extended. If he cannot, then he would be free.”"

With Lewis Hamilton only having signed a one-year extension to stay on at Mercedes, and Valtteri Bottas’s contract also up at the end of the year, speculation is already rife on Verstappen moving to Mercedes in 2022 if he does not have a car this year to take the fight to them — so much so that team principal Christian Horner has already said that Red Bull are ignoring it.

Since then, Perez has said he feels better equipped to succeed where Pierre Gasly and Albon have not. He thinks his experience of driving in Formula 1 for what will be his 11th successive season stands him in good stead to cope with the pressure. Perez is relishing the challenge, saying he thinks it will be “big” and that the move “comes at a great point of [his] career”.

Perez also said that while Verstappen is the benchmark on Saturday in qualifying, his “strength comes on Sunday, with race craft and race pace”, and that his aim is to “over-deliver” what the car is capable of.

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Let the games begin.