We are down to the nitty gritty, to grasping the chemistry of rubber, the physics of friction and tyre degradation, the impact of temperature. Somewhere in the blizzard of data and statistics lies the sweet spot. Red Bull found it in Austin, Mercedes in Istanbul and Sochi.
The engineers have a clear week to pore over the telemetry of the United States Grand Prix before advancing on November’s triple header in Mexico, Brazil and Qatar, time in which to identify the distinguishing features that took Red Bull to pole and victory at a circuit thought to favour Mercedes. The result is a 12-point advantage to Max Verstappen over Lewis Hamilton in the closest inter-team title fight for 15 years.
It is a measure of Hamilton’s pedigree that he is this close to Verstappen after 17 races. The Dutchman has led 504 laps to Hamilton’s 154. He has taken nine poles to Hamilton’s three. The victory in Austin was Verstappen’s eighth to Hamilton’s five. Red Bull’s early season dominance has over 17 grands prix been whittled down to parity.
With five races to go the difference in performance is marginal. Verstappen benefitted in Austin as a consequence of warmer than average temperatures, a feature which impacts Mercedes negatively, and an abrasive, bumpy surface that reduced the effectiveness of the medium compound.
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Verstappen took a risk that the harder tyre would get him home after pitting in early to execute the undercut following Hamilton’s flying start to take the lead from second on the grid.
His tyre management was exemplary, helped by the Red Bull’s more stable rear. Hamilton cut the advantage from eight seconds to one but with the rear tyres overheating could not get close enough to overtake in the closing laps. Though Mexico and Brazil are said to suit Red Bull, none would bet their house on it. And with rain always a threat in Brazil, the random variable might render abstract calculations useless around the Tropic of Capricorn.
Nevertheless the Mercedes factory at Brackley, and the Red Bull headquarters 20 miles east in Milton Keynes, will be thrumming to the music of computers and bytes over the coming days to get some understanding of how to attack the season finale. Red Bull are clearly the happier after overcoming what looked like a definitive shift in momentum towards Mercedes in Russia and Turkey.
Now it is Mercedes left scratching heads after a United States Grand Prix at which they were a second quicker in first practice on Friday, albeit with the power unit turned up, yet two tenths adrift 24 hours later in qualifying.
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“Whilst the win wasn’t miles out of our reach, we weren’t good enough in qualifying on Saturday and we weren’t good enough on the medium tyre in the first stint,” Mercedes trackside engineering chief, Andrew Shovlin, said. “We understand a few of the issues that have cost us a bit of pace here, but there are others that we’ve not yet got to the bottom of, so that’s something we need to make progress with ahead of the remaining races.”
Hamilton is a known quantity in the context of a championship fight. About Verstappen we are still learning. Thus far he has given no hint of weakness. On the contrary his management of race weekends has been exemplary, neither getting carried away by his successes nor over-reacting to defeats.
His defence of the lead after losing out at the first corner in Austin was described by Red Bull team principal Christian Horner as “phenomenal, one of the best of his career.”
He was not wrong. That is what it takes to get the better of a seven times champion.
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