Max Verstappen: World Championship Challenger in the 2021 Formula 1 Racing Season

Will Mercedes’ seven year dominance come to a close?


Milan Csizmadia / Unsplash

The RB16B, based on last year’s RB16, is Red Bull’s challenger for the 2021 Formula 1 World Championship.

With the opening of the 2021 Formula 1 racing season, the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team is coming off of seven consecutive constructors titles in the sport, ranging from their first in 2014 when they nailed regulation changes that shook up the previous domination by the Red Bull team and Sebastian Vettel, to their most recent in 2020 with the mechanically dominant Mercedes-AMG F1 W11 EQ Performance. Paired with the Formula 1 legend Lewis Hamilton, who has won an unprecedented seven World Drivers Championships (WDCs) in the sport and is now seeking his eighth, the driver-team combination has remained as both the favorites and defending champions of the greater half of the last decade. (Hamilton’s seventh win was with the German racing outfit, having won the WDC with Mercedes 6 out of the previous 7 years, long after his initial successful championship bid with McLaren in 2008).

In the shadow of Mercedes’ dominance thus far, however, has risen Dutch driver Max Verstappen, both the poster-boy and leading figure of the Austrian racing team. Although Verstappen is only 23, he has built an impressive résumé having debuted at 17 with Red Bull’s feeder team Scuderia Toro Rosso (now named Scuderia Alpha Tauri). Identified by many as one of, if not the best drivers on the present grid, the mechanical gap created by the dominance of the Mercedes cars versus the reliability and stability issues experienced by Red Bull has kept him away from what would be a very well deserved WDC, until now. 

The exit of Honda as an engine supplier in 2022 has prompted the Japanese manufacturer to give it their all in this year’s engine for Red Bull. The introduction of Mexican driver Sergio Perez as Verstappen’s teammate lends hope that the Red Bull team will manage to have a competitive second car, filling the hole that Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo had left in the team since his unexpected departure in 2018. This, combined with the burning desire to return to the glory days of the early 2010s, has set Red Bull up for success. 

Regulation changes from the previous season have been minimal, in preparation for the complete overhaul to come in the 2022 season, and yet they have still proven to be decisive in the constructors rankings for the 2021 season. Mechanical regulation changes included: changes to the car’s floors, which previously rectangular and complicated now find themselves triangular and as a solid piece; rear brake duct winglets being shortened, which act to create downforce that is fed to the wheels of the car; diffuser fences, the vertical fins that come down from the diffusers, being cut in length by 50mm; and slight changes in weight restrictions. Non-mechanical regulation changes consisted largely of adjustments targeting the dominant teams, introducing new cost caps for racing outfits and a sliding scale on aerodynamic testing for teams, being inversely related to the constructors standings of the year before. 

Rake height has proven to be everything this year, with teams which invested in higher angles being rewarded for their gambles and those following lower rake heights being punished by the mechanical meta. The rake height of a car is ultimately its angle in relation to the ground, with a higher rake height meaning that the rear end of the car is angled upwards, further off the ground than the front end. Alpha Tauri and Red Bull were the two clear winners from the regulation changes, having built their 2021 contenders with high rake heights and thus leaping ahead of where they were beforehand in terms of mechanical speed. Mercedes and the newly branded Aston Martin were the losers of the changes, both teams not having adapted as well to the regulation changes.

A blunder on rake height is anything but a championship deciding variable when it comes to Mercedes however, especially so with the likes of Lewis Hamilton behind the wheel. The team now finds themselves without the benefit of the clearly dominant car this year, but with nearly a decade of experience of winning championships, the team and drivers will quickly work to recuperate lost ground and bite back at the favored Red Bull cars.

The season opener at Bahrain has then set the stage for the championship fight that is sure to ensue, as Max Verstappen and Red Bull find themselves with the best chance to secure the championship since the birth of their partnership. 

Verstappen was able to set a dominating pole during qualifying, setting a .4 second gap to Hamilton’s P2 qualifying run, demonstrating both the speed and skill of the young Dutch driver and the strength of the RB16B (Red Bull’s 2021 contender) in comparison to the rest of the field. The race unraveled into a tense duel between the two, as they clashed up until the very last lap as Hamilton fought tooth and nail to keep the Red Bull behind. A blunder on Verstappen’s part regarding track limits cost him the race, as he was forced to give the position back after an illegal overtake and in doing so trespassed on the dirty part of the track, picking up some debris and costing him time in the following crucial laps. There is also controversy on Hamilton’s part, regarding his use of track limits and the generosity awarded to him by the FIA (International Automobile Federation), which gave him an edge in lap times for a good chunk of the race. 

The takeaway of the race weekend however was that Mercedes did not have the fastest car, and the rivalry between Verstappen in the Red Bull and Hamilton in the Mercedes will likely be the championship deciding fight throughout the following 22 races of the 2021 season. With confidence, determination, and a little bit of luck, Verstappen has been given the best opportunity of his career thus far to usurp the dominance of Mercedes and bring the WDC (and even WCC) back to Red Bull. 

With confidence, determination, and a little bit of luck, Verstappen has been given the best opportunity of his career thus far to usurp the dominance of Mercedes and bring the WDC (and even WCC) back to Red Bull.