Red Bull Racing emerges as championship contenders amidst Mercedes’ testing woes

2021 Bahrain Pre-Season Test, Day 3. Photo courtesy Wolfgang Wilhelm

By Shwetha Surendran 
Boston University News Service

If you missed seeing multi-million dollar, highly engineered racing cars running around a circuit for a couple of hours, good news: they’re back.

A welcome respite for motorheads, after a two-month winter break, Formula One pre-season testing commenced at the Sakhir International Circuit in Bahrain last week. 

While recent tradition dictates that the pre-season tests are usually held in the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Spain, the pandemic caused some changes. The circuit will also play host to the opening Grand Prix weekend of the 2021 season, an honor that is usually reserved for Melbourne and the Australian Grand Prix, now postponed to November. 

The changes continue performance-wise as well. 3,725 laps, three days and one sandstorm later, Red Bull Racing’s machine –– the RB16B –– set an early pace on March 12, seemingly posing a threat to the often dominant Mercedes-AMG Petronas. 

Notorious for starting the season slow and rising to the challenge only in the latter half, Red Bull Racing seems to have sustained their race-winning pace and reliability from their win in the last Grand Prix of the 2020 season at Abu Dhabi. 

Despite the varying temperatures in the sand-strewn circuit, Max Verstappen, a Red Bull driver, topped the timing screens on both testing days one and three, setting the fastest lap time of 1m28.960s on the soft C4 tire compounds.  

“It’s been the best pre-season test, but it doesn’t give you any guarantees,” Verstappen said. “We’ll find out at the first race where we are.”

In a worrisome testing weekend for the Mercedes-AMG Petronas team, their 2021 title contender, Mercedes-AMG F1 W12 E Performance, was plagued with gearbox issues and an unstable rear end. Driver Valtteri Bottas set the fastest lap on day two, and in doing so, created the only bright spot for the defending champions. 

The W12, a car that is supposed to partner seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton in his quest for that record-breaking eighth title in 2021, looked unreliable; it sent Hamilton into spins and running wide into gravel traps. 

Gearbox issues also proved to be a hitch in the newly revamped Aston Martin Racing team’s plans, with its driver, Sebastian Vettel, spending more time in the garage than on track.

Scuderia Ferrari, who finished a lackluster sixth last season –– their worst finish since 1980 –– flew under the radar with their drastically revised SF21. The Maranello-based outfit’s scarlet-red machine featured a revised nose, power unit, and rear. This was in a bid to return to the championship fight at the front with Red Bull and Mercedes. 

It is a prospect that the Alpine F1 Team might be hoping for too, with two-time world champion Fernando Alonso back in the car since their title-winning partnership in 2005. The Spaniard completed 127 laps on his Alpine debut, despite being injured in a bicycle accident a few weeks ago.

While the pre-season test results should have offered up some answers, it offers more questions: could Red Bull Racing pose a legitimate title challenge to Mercedes? Can Verstappen go head-to-head with Hamilton for the driver’s title? Who are the dark horses in the midfield battle?

These questions will be answered soon. The 2021 season begins on March 26 at the Formula One Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix.

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