Red Bull is experiencing a magical season from a performance and results perspective, having taken five consecutive victories – that last happened in 2013 – with Mercedes comfortably the second quickest team – which also hasn’t been the case since 2013.
Verstappen’s double victory in Austria could well set the tone for the remainder of the 2021 season, with an RB16B that now looks competitive on any type of circuit – Red Bull even said the same after winning in France.
“If we can beat them here then we can beat them anywhere,” said team boss Christian Horner.
But how has Red Bull broken the dominance Mercedes has enjoyed for so long?
Adrian Newey and his team laid the foundations of the RB16B at the end of last season with a series of late development and updates, which were aimed at 2021. That has continued into the early races this year, which is an impressive feat given the focus required for 2022’s huge regulatory overhaul.
Mercedes has taken a slightly different path. It hasn’t introduced many upgrades this year, in fact the W12 has largely remained identical to what was raced in Bahrain several months ago, bar some circuit specific updates.
This is a route many other teams have taken, as they consider this year a “transitional” season ahead of next year, which requires 100 per cent focus to fully understand the new rules which will mark F1’s biggest overhaul in decades.
A key moment for Red Bull last year was a correction in its data, which saw the correlation between its wind tunnel and simulation data match up, which essentially gives confidence in its updates as the expected gains are realised on track. This helped them to discover immediate performance in the second half of last year.
Meanwhile the minor 2021 rule changes, which cut the floor and changed the diffuser, mixed up the cards and ultimately looks to have favoured Red Bull’s high rake philosophy.
The FIA gave teams two development tokens last year, which Red Bull spent on homologating a new gearbox, which allowed it to modify the suspension arm attachments.
This has helped the team to generate a lot of rear downforce from highly efficiency components (downforce generated with low drag), such as the floor and diffuser. The high rake set-up makes the aerodynamics work quite differently compared to a “flat” car, such as the Mercedes.
In the comparison below you can see the different shape of the rear suspension, and how the sides of the RB16B close much earlier in the lower part.
Knowing how dominant the Mercedes W11 was and the expectation that would carry over to the W12, Red Bull haven’t settled. At almost every race this season, they have introduced small updates aimed at extracting the absolute maximum.
A leap in performance was found in Monaco and then finally in Austria – the team’s home venue – there were further updates that look to have stretched the gap between Red Bull and Mercedes, with Verstappen taking somewhat comfortable victories.
One of those changes was to the diffuser on Verstappen’s car.
Serrations were added to the diffuser in Monaco, and were then extended the entire length of the extractor profile in Styria. These help to increase the diffuser’s efficiency. Perez raced the update at the second Austrian event as Red Bull carried out back-to-back tests in the first event/
With a view to Silverstone – a somewhat Mercedes stronghold – Red Bull introduced changes to its bargeboards, which have been revised in the central tunnel.
The tunnel between the vertical column element and the many parallel profiles has been widened, in order to manage a greater amount of air flow towards the sidepods. The diverters were already revised for Portimao, and this is already the third specification that Red Bull has used this year.
The bargeboards are a nerve centre of the car, managing the airflow and how it will be directed to the rear of the car to create rear downforce. Small tweaks here can bring about quite substantial gains, even if the changes might look inconsequential.
A small change like this will require many hours of work on the simulator and CFD. From this point of view, Red Bull does not seem to fear the budget cap, introduced this year, which Mercedes has already suggested is limiting their potential to upgrade the W12.
It’s also worth remembering that new ‘balance of performance’ rules have been introduced and from June 30th, Red Bull’s wind tunnel time has been cut down to 70 per cent of the maximum, as a result of leading the championship standings.
As if that were not enough, a new front wing specification was introduced, building on the innovations introduced in Monaco and Baku.
Compared to the wing used for Styria, the new specification seeks to bring more air flow to the lower part of the main plane, which has a more curved shape before the neutral zone at 250mm from the centreline.
The wing has also been revised in the innermost part where the Y250 vortex is formed, instead making the flow work better in the direction of the bargeboards.
Three different specifications of front wings in just a handful of races is very impressive, even for a normal season. A team would normally bring a handful of front wing updates over an entire season, let alone a few races.
There has been talk of an updated Honda power unit delivering a horsepower boost. These claims have been denied by both Honda and Red Bull, as the rules mean engine development is frozen, except for reliability purposes.
However it’s believed Honda mandated the first power units be run below full power because of a known reliability issue, which has now been fixed, allowing Red Bull to finally run at 100 per cent performance. That would account for the horsepower jump Mercedes believe Honda have made, according to their GPS data.
It will now be interesting to see if Mercedes have conceded the titles to Red Bull, or whether they will introduce some late updates in an attempt to catch up.