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F1: Austria 1, 2021 - no mistakes but Mercedes outpaced.

Bryan Edwards

The Styrian Grand Prix was very misleading. It looked processional, almost pedestrian. But it was far from that. Equally importantly, it wasn't a race of pit-stop strategies. Yes, there were some tyre management strategies employed - and if they demonstrated anything it was that, in general, it doesn't matter what tyres are used in which order and, equally, it isn't critical if drivers burn the tyres early in a stint or at the end. In fact, the only thing about tyres was whether they would determine a one or two stop race.

What really matters is that Red Bull and their soon-to-be-former engine supplier Honda have quietly gone about producing a car that is faster and handles better than the Mercedes. At the Red Bull Ring, Hamilton implied that his only hope for a win was that it would rain. It didn't.

In the first Grand Prix of 2020, Mercedes beat Red Bull by more than 20 seconds. In the first of two races around the same track this year, Red Bull beat Mercedes by the same amount.
Let's be clear: the Mercedes is not a worse car than it was in 2020: the difference is all at Red Bull. With no fuss, no drama, Red Bull has systematically eradicated as many deficiencies as possible. And it's not hampered by the 2021 Honda engine which is propelling AlphaTouri to a highly competitive performance.

Bottas is a Speilberg circuit specialist but in qualifying even he could not match Verstappen's Red Bull. Demoted to fifth as a result of a penalty, he scrambled all race to get onto the podium. If the race had been two or three laps longer, he'd have lost that, too, to a hard-charging Perez who, with 15 laps to go, fitted new boots and overcame about 20 second deficit to be only a couple of seconds behind Bottas who narrowly avoided being the kind of sitting duck he had been in the previous race.

The Mercedes engine powered Norris to P4 in qualifying from where he inherited third due to Bottas's demotion. He raced with the Bottas and Perez, on equal terms, until it was decided that if he backed off and preserved his tyres, he would be assured of a solid points haul to help keep the team ahead of Ferrari. His team-mate, Ricciardo, had trouble all race and ended down amongst the dead men. But Norris acquitted himself well by holding back several cars, including a Ferrari, to finish fifth.

The same engine put a big smile on everyone's face in qualifying as Russell put his Williams into the top ten - only to be turfed out by a late run by Stroll in his Aston Martin only eight thousandths of a second quicker. But he started in P10 because of a penalty for Yuki Tsunoda, imposed for baulking Bottas. He was looking almost sure of a points finish and had hopes that he might make it up to eighth which, as he emotionally said later would mean four or five points for a team the really needs and deserves them. But it wasn't to be. After his third visit to the pits to recharge the hydraulics, by then two laps down, the team retired him. His first action on climbing out of the car was to put his arm around his mechanics to comfort them. Pictures showed some of the team with their heads in their hands, inconsolable.

Both McLaren and Williams are reckoned to be behind Mercedes in aero development and their young guns both hustled the cars forward on a track that is mostly straight and has limited "twiddly bits" where the aero matters most. This bodes well for tracks such as Silverstone and Monza - but not for Mercedes itself, it seems. McLaren have found pace in a straight line: just as last week, Hamilton complained about Red Bull "They are just too fast," this week Perez complained "he's very quick on the straights" as he struggled, in the first ten laps to catch Norris who had qualified only five hundredths behind Hamilton.

The other Mercedes powered team, Aston Martin where it's all getting a bit incestuous, frankly, had some fun but didn't really feature as front runners, which surprised many.

The simple thing is that Mercedes' factory team and the conceptually similar car at Aston Martin just lacked the pace to keep up with those they are expected to compete with.

There's another race at the same track next week. Hamilton will no doubt be wishing even harder for rain.

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