Formula 1: Why Red Bull cannot operate on Mercedes’ level yet

Formula 1 spends a lot of its time as a guessing game, never more so than this season. But Red Bull have shown they are still not at Mercedes’ operating level.

Red Bull provided Formula 1 fans with a lot of promise after preseason testing, yet they currently trail Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton. And there are a fair few reasons for that.

After four rounds, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen trails Hamilton by 14 points, with the wins tally being 3-1 in favor of the Brit. But why are Red Bull seemingly struggling with their best opportunity for glory in this hybrid era?

Both leading drivers are currently performing at an expediential level; they are in another league. While the leading drivers are leading, the second drivers are having to playing catch-up.

Yes, that is normal in Formula 1, but when you are attempting to operate at the highest level of the sport, both drivers need to be performing similarly.

Obviously, that has not been the case for Red Bull for a number of seasons now, since Daniel Ricciardo turned his back in 2018. Throwing the experienced Sergio Perez into the dangerous second Red Bull seat has had its pros and cons, but many people expected more from the Mexican at this stage of the season.

The reason why Mercedes could afford that second pit stop is because the second Red Bull was nowhere to be found. A Perez who could have been fighting Valtteri Bottas for third place would have prevented any strategy gambles by their rivals, but no. That Perez did not show up. And this did not go amiss with the Dutchman nor his team.

Let’s quickly and abruptly throw it back to the 2019 Hungarian Grand Prix, for obvious reasons. Long story short, Hamilton followed Verstappen, who was the lone Red Bull in the attack. Hamilton and Mercedes pulled a second stop for tires, enabling Hamilton to push like crazy, while Red Bull did not respond. The Brit caught the Dutchman into turn one: move done and race win.

It seems that Red Bull did not learn their lesson.

Despite warning Verstappen on the radio that a repeat of this race could be about to present itself, they left the car out in Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix. Shock horror, the same result happened, and it is arguably not the first race they have lost this season due to poor strategy.

However, blaming the strategy solely is easy. The worrying thing for Red Bull is that Verstappen claimed he saw them losing the lead and the win quite early on in the race.

A solid and aggressive start saw the number 33 car take the lead, without the number 44 car following close behind. By staying within 1.5 seconds of the Red Bull throughout the opening stint, Hamilton’s pace advantage was clear and Verstappen knew it.

Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is an established track, but it is a tricky track at which to follow and race in Formula 1, to the delight of many.

By staying within 1.5 seconds of the race leader, it revealed Hamilton’s true pace. For example, Bottas in the other Mercedes struggled to get close to the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc for third place throughout a large period of the race. Big difference.

Usually, Red Bull show better race pace than single-lap pace, but that seems to be different this season. The pace they have so far shown in the race would be dominant, if Hamilton was not in the race. Hamilton is the only driver who can match Verstappen’s pace throughout, and for large periods, he has been faster.

Tracks also seem to be playing a large role in this fight for supremacy. The cars for this season seem very track dependent. Circuits such as Algarve International Circuit and Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya suited the Mercedes more then the Red Bull, whereas Bahrain International Circuit and Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari arguably suited the Red Bull more, another reason why the Bahrain loss will haunt the Milton Keynes outfit.

With the classic Monaco Grand Prix next, who will be captaining the ship? Mercedes are still the targets as they carry the momentum and the speed, but it is a race in which Red Bull and Verstappen need to secure the bag.

Normally, Red Bull look for Circuit de Monaco on the calendar, but the final sector of this past weekend’s venue is usually a good indication of who to look for at Monaco. Mercedes looked on rails throughout that sector, more so than they have in previous years. Having said that, Verstappen made the final sector his throughout qualifying.