Have Red Bull blown their chance to end Lewis Hamilton's and Mercedes' reign of dominance?

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Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing waves to the crowd in parc ferme during the F1 Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on August 01, 2021 in Budapest, Hungary
Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing waves to the crowd in parc ferme during the F1 Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on August 01, 2021 in Budapest, Hungary

In a matter of weeks, Red Bull's and Max Verstappen’s assault on both Formula One championships has gone from looking assured to being in danger of being derailed. After a pointless British Grand Prix, a first-lap collision with Lewis Hamilton and a hefty dose of controversy, the Hungarian Grand Prix was little better.

Gallingly, both Red Bulls were taken out because of Valtteri Bottas’s terrible opening corner misjudgement in the damp. Verstappen scrambled his heavily damaged Red Bull to ninth and two points. Hamilton fought back to second in a race he should have won easily, but for a Mercedes strategy miscall on tyres at the restart. After an unprecedented five races without a pole or a win in F1’s post-2013 era, the seven-time champion has turned a 32-point deficit into an eight-point advantage.

After being in a position of dominance, have Red Bull missed their golden opportunity to dethrone Hamilton and Mercedes, ending their run of seven consecutive double championships? Has something fundamentally changed in the last few weeks? Verstappen has scored just five points in the last two rounds and team-mate Sergio Pérez has managed none. Mercedes and Hamilton have 61 and 45 in that time.

Should Red Bull be worried by Mercedes' performance resurgence?

Mercedes have been much more competitive since Austria. After failing to register the quickest time over one lap once from Monaco to Austria, they managed it at both Silverstone and the Hungaroring, edging ahead of Red Bull on average for the season. Still, the gap is just 0.007 per cent.

In races, too, they appear to have improved. It is difficult to say what Red Bull’s true potential in Hungary would have been, but it was a long way from Verstappen running away with it as he did in both races in Austria.

Should that resurgence be Red Bull’s biggest worry for the next 13 grands prix? That after a prolonged slump, Mercedes are finally on top of their problems? Absolutely not. Mercedes have edged closer to Red Bull – and are possibly marginally ahead – but the performance gap is not significant and is hugely uncertain. At each track it will swing one way or another again.

There is uncertainty over the make-up of the remaining rounds, but it is difficult to see one team pulling a significant and sustained advantage. This is not a season of Mercedes tracks or Red Bull tracks or one where a Honda engine or a Mercedes engine might prove critical.

The drivers can make the difference... but Hamilton is lucky to be leading

Hungarian Grand Prix - Hungaroring, Budapest, Hungary - August 1, 2021 McLaren's Lando Norris collides with Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas and Red Bull's Max Verstappen - Pool via REUTERS
Hungarian Grand Prix - Hungaroring, Budapest, Hungary - August 1, 2021 McLaren's Lando Norris collides with Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas and Red Bull's Max Verstappen - Pool via REUTERS

As it is so close, the performances of the driver and the team in battle – as opposed to the performance of the car – are more likely to be the difference, especially with development of 2021 cars slowing down as we head towards F1’s new era.

Yet, that should have been the case so far but it has not been. You do not need to step too deeply into data analysis to realise that Hamilton and Mercedes are fortunate to be leading both championships.

If Red Bull have already missed their chance to topple Mercedes, then they will not have “blown” it – the fault lies not with them. Critically, in the last two races Mercedes have been the beneficiaries of their own mistakes. Christian Horner’s team should be feeling an enormous sense of injustice that extends long before Silverstone’s controversy.

Firstly, Hamilton has made larger and more significant errors than Verstappen. It has been an uncharacteristically messy season so far from the Briton, though it has been laced with moments of his usual brilliance. Verstappen has been consistent and almost free of the larger mistakes that Hamilton has made.

The Dutchman’s largest error? Probably nearly spinning off in the wet under the safety car at Imola. Hamilton has made several with very few negative consequences. At Imola, he crashed into the barriers lapping George Russell, losing his front wing and dropping to the back. A near-instantaneous red flag allowed him back on the lead lap and he fortuitously finished second. In Azerbaijan, he dramatically locked up at the restart and probably cost himself victory but Verstappen was already out of the race after a tyre failure. At Silverstone, he was at fault for the first-lap crash with Verstappen but went on to win the race as the Dutchman scored no points and had to take a trip to the hospital after a 51g crash. Verstappen has clearly been the better driver this year. It might be too much to label Hamilton’s current advantage a travesty, but it does look undeserved.

Red Bull have reasons to be cheerful... and fearful

 Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner talks with Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing and Sergio Perez of Mexico and Red Bull Racing in the Paddock before the F1 Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on August 01, 2021 in Budapest, Hungary - Getty Images Europe
Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner talks with Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing and Sergio Perez of Mexico and Red Bull Racing in the Paddock before the F1 Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on August 01, 2021 in Budapest, Hungary - Getty Images Europe

Red Bull can look at the trend of Mercedes mistakes and see that they have been the better team – that if the trend continues the championship will come to them. Alternatively, they can expect Mercedes and Hamilton to stop making these mistakes. Which is more likely? The former.

The Hamilton-Mercedes partnership has never been under this kind of sustained pressure from a driver as good. Perhaps it is telling. Red Bull might also expect their poor luck to turn around but there is no guarantee of that either. It looks like the bad weekends will define the title more than the good ones. But with the races coming thick and fast we are approaching a critical time. They need to do, at least, what Mercedes did after worrying weekends in Monaco and Azerbaijan and stop the rot.

The bad news for Red Bull is that the two heavy Mercedes-caused shunts at Silverstone and the Hungaroring have left Pérez and Verstappen with likely 10-place grid penalties (at some point) for going over their allocation of three power units for the season. That could prove critical.

After his incessant and incandescent fury at Silverstone, Horner was more phlegmatic after his team’s Hungarian woes. On the weekends of defeat – Bahrain, Spain, Portugal, Silverstone and Hungary – he has had a tendency to focus on Red Bull’s progress since 2020. This is sensible in one way but also misses the point in another.

Yes, winning more races is good but with an overhaul of the regulations coming next year, this progress must be backed up with a championship for it to be meaningful. Yes, Verstappen has been the better driver. Yes, Red Bull have been the better team. Yes, Hamilton has made large errors and yes Mercedes have looked more troubled than they have for eight years. But ultimately, performances are important but results are the defining factor, however unjust they may be. Time will tell if Red Bull have missed their chance.

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