Formula 1: What’s behind the renewed Mercedes-Red Bull beef?

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Formula 1 (Photo by Michael Potts/BSR Agency/Getty Images)
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Formula 1 (Photo by Michael Potts/BSR Agency/Getty Images) /

The last 14 Formula 1 seasons have been dominated by two teams: Mercedes and Red Bull. In that timeframe, Mercedes won eight consecutive world constructor championships, while Red Bull are set to win a sixth in 2023.

Given the amount of dominance both teams experienced during their peaks, and the competition they had with each other during some of those seasons, it’s understandable that there would be a rivalry between the two Formula 1 squads and their drivers as they fight for supremacy.

However, over the last two and a half years, the rivalry between Mercedes and Red Bull has turned more into a form of hatred and a working relationship with seemingly no respect.

Following a seventh straight constructor title for Mercedes and a seventh driver title for Lewis Hamilton in 2020, Red Bull and Max Verstappen were finally able to challenge in 2021.

The back-and-forth between them started off wonderfully until a wave of incidents caused a big rift that continued to sour relations right up until the last lap of the season.

It was one of the closest and most exciting, yet most heated, controversial, and intense championship duels the sport has ever seen.

While the hate between them seemed to settle in 2022, it flared up again during the 2023 Italian Grand Prix and even reached a new boiling point.

The weekend started off with Hamilton, albeit prompted by a reporter’s question, pointing out that he is “no more impressed” with Verstappen’s achievements than anybody else’s, and how his situations with teammates have been far different to the Dutchman’s.

"“When I qualified half a second, six-tenths ahead of Valtteri (Bottas), they (the media) didn’t say the same thing as they say today when Max qualifies six-tenths ahead of (Sergio) Perez. It’s blown up much more. In my personal opinion, Valtteri and all of my teammates have been stronger than the teammates that Max has had.“Jenson (Button), Fernando (Alonso), George (Russell), Valtteri, Nico (Rosberg). I’ve had so many. These guys have all been very, very strong, very consistent and Max has not raced against anyone like that.”"

And just as expected, the fiery Dutchman quickly responded to the seven-time world champion’s claims.

"“Maybe he’s a little jealous of my current success. This kind of statement… he possibly thinks he’s winning something with that, but it makes no difference to me. I think Mercedes have a very hard time dealing with losing, after all these years of winning so much…“You can keep shouting and screaming that what we do is not that special… you just have to deal with yourself.”"

These quotes instantly opened a massive can of worms and reignited the large fire that had, for a little while, been extinguished: the dislike the two sides have for each other.

But it didn’t stop there.

Following Verstappen’s record-breaking Italian Grand Prix victory, which was his 10th in a row, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff had his say on the Red Bull driver’s landmark achievement.

"“Our situation was maybe a little bit different because we had two drivers fighting against each other within the team. I don’t know whether he cares about the record — it’s not something that would be important for me, any of those numbers. It’s for Wikipedia and nobody reads that anyway.”"

While it is important to note that Wolff mentioned that Verstappen has been “outstanding” this year, he also brushed off his driver’s comments about Verstappen’s teammates, instead saying that drivers like to “poke each other a bit” and that it is all “part of the fun”.

The comments from Hamilton and Wolff have shocked and disappointed many in the Formula 1 paddock, including former drivers and drivers-turned pundits Martin Brundle and Damon Hill.

Why is tension continuing to rise between the two Formula 1 giants?

As is the norm in any sport, especially in motorsport, when one team is doing a far better job than the others, it creates a sense of jealousy among everyone else. After all, Mercedes feel the same way about Red Bull’s dominance that Red Bull felt about Mercedes’ dominance during their dominant years.

Given Mercedes’ record-setting period of dominance from 2014 to 2020 and parts of 2021, suddenly never being capable of competing for wins — and only the odd podium finish — has been a cause of frustration.

The jealousy and frustration of losing are clearly what brought Hamilton to say what he did about Verstappen’s teammates.

Regardless of whether he is right or wrong, Hamilton’s teammate comments were a clear attempt to boost his own achievements by undermining those of Verstappen, and consequently, the various drivers who have gone up against the Dutchman.

He is jealous that drivers who he feels are lesser than he is get to drive dominant machinery, thus, in his mind, allowing his greatest rival to dance off into the distance, while he is forced to scratch and claw for what are, to him, meaningless results.

Considering Hamilton’s own record-breaking resume, and the fact he will never be teammates with Verstappen, he knows he can never really be told he’s wrong or truly disproven.

Still, it was a low blow to Verstappen, one of the greatest pure talents to ever grace the grid, on a weekend when he was destined to reach his biggest record to date.

But the recent comments from Mercedes indicate something deeper. Among the jealousy and frustration are also hurt feelings.

While Hamilton won the 2021 British Grand Prix despite his 10-second penalty for his role in the incident with Verstappen on the opening lap, the Dutchman was checked out in hospital. A Twitter post from Verstappen soon afterward claimed that Hamilton’s move was “dangerous”, and that his joy after the race was “disrespectful and unsportsmanlike”.

Come the end of the season, any form of a positive relationship between the two sides was gone after a huge wave of additional incidents both on and off the track.

In what Red Bull team principal Christian Horner described as “the most political fight we’ve been involved in”, things were both said and done that can never be taken back, feelings were hurt, and all forms of respect were neglected.

Aside from that, though, Mercedes and Hamilton also felt robbed of a record eighth world championship for the British driver, due to race director Michael Masi’s controversial season-altering decision at the end of the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

With that result set in stone, Mercedes and Hamilton saw 2022 as a chance to come back stronger. It was a chance to right the wrongs and get their crown back against the parties that had drug their name through the mud and took it away from them.

Hamilton even made a now infamous quote before the start of that season that “if you think that what you saw at the end of last year was my best, wait until you see this year.”

Given the fact that Mercedes have only won a single Formula 1 race since the end of 2021, their lack of success in fighting back is beginning to weigh on their shoulders.

And Hamilton’s recent comments are a telltale sign, especially for someone as classy and respectful of other drivers as he usually is.

He feels victimized by the words and actions of Red Bull in 2021, such as when Horner and advisor Helmut Marko rubbished his comeback drive in Sao Paulo because of engine performance, and in turn, he too is refusing to give praise.

Likewise, Wolff’s complete and utter dismissal of a landmark Formula 1 achievement that may never be matched shows that he also wants to give Verstappen and Red Bull as minimal respect for their achievements as possible, simply because he feels they didn’t give Mercedes any themselves when the German manufacturer was on top of the sport.

The permanent scars from what was said and done in 2021 run deep through Wolff’s, Hamilton’s and all of Mercedes’ skin, and it is finally taking its toll.

All-time Formula 1 wins list. dark. Next

Hurt feelings or not, it’s still up to them, and only them, to make up ground if they want to challenge their rivals for another title. Verstappen now owns 28 Formula 1 victories since Hamilton’s most recent one.