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After one of their most dominant seasons in 2020, in which they delivered another pair of titles, Mercedes’ domination of the V6 hybrid turbo era faced its greatest challenge yet in the shape of Red Bull last year.

Not only did Red Bull catch them, but other teams from the chasing pack occasionally took the fight to them in qualifying, notably Ferrari and McLaren.
Normally that would have been surprising, given how much of the 2021 cars were simply adapted versions of their predecessors to suit the transitional nature of the new regulations before a major shift to the radical new aero package for 2022. However, the few technical rules that did change for 2021 around the rear of the car had a striking impact on those teams that ran with a low rake aero philosophy – Mercedes and Aston Martin.

 

 

That effect was clear from the very first race. Red Bull beat Mercedes to pole position, but Lewis Hamilton won the season-opener thanks to clever strategy by his team and Max Verstappen failing to make a late passing attempt stick when he ran off-track.

Red Bull were too quick for Mercedes to contain in France
But within a few races Red Bull clearly had the fastest car on the grid for the first time since the adoption of the V6 turbos back in 2014. Mercedes unable to match the ultimate pace of the Red Bull in the hands of Verstappen from the Monaco Grand Prix of round five through to the Austrian Grand Prix.
This stretch saw Red Bull take five consecutive victories and, with it, inflict Mercedes’ longest win-less streak since 2013. Two surprise poles for Ferrari and Charles Leclerc – benefiting in no small part from red flag interventions – arguably were the only thing that prevented Verstappen from a six-race pole streak, meaning he had to settle for four on the bounce instead. A clear demonstration of the potency of the Verstappen, Red Bull and Honda package over a single lap.

 

 

Silverstone upgraded boosted Mercedes
They responded with their final major upgrade package of the season at the British Grand Prix just before the summer break. The impact was clear with Hamilton taking the win at Silverstone, albeit after clashing with Verstappen. But then a series of highly eventful races with unconventional outcomes obscured the true potential of both cars at the front of the field.
Rain in Hungary, Russia, Turkey and a complete wash-out in Belgium saw the focus fall on the midfield. And it was a truly tumultuous year for performance among the pack.

 

 

Ferrari appeared to have bounced back from their woeful 2020 season with some solid, consistent points throughout the early phase of the year. Then, in France, their inability to get their tyres working around the Paul Ricard circuit left Ferrari falling down the order, swallowed up by the field as they dropped out of the points.

This one poor race allowed McLaren to gain significant ground in the constructors’ championship and jump up to third place. But they were not the only midfield team to enjoy success around the summer break.

 

 

The mid part of the season saw a convergence of a group of teams, with McLaren, Ferrari, AlphaTauri – predominately through the efforts of Pierre Gasly – and even Alpine and Aston Martin seeing their relative pace fluctuating on an almost race-to-race basis. While McLaren were undoubtedly assisted in Monza by Verstappen’s slow pit stop and the eventual collision between the two title rivals that saw both retire, Daniel Ricciardo’s Italian Grand Prix race pace was genuinely strong enough to give him a realistic chance at victory even if Verstappen and Hamilton had not collided.

 

 

By the end of the year, the trio of Ferrari, McLaren and AlphaTauri – aided by improved results from Yuki Tsunoda – established themselves as the clear ‘B-tier’ of the grid. Ferrari, now consistently quicker than McLaren once more, gradually overtook their long-time rivals in the standings and pulled away, taking a comfortable third place by season’s end.

Needlessto say, the one team that the most consistent performance throughout the season was Haas – only because of how much slower they were than the rest of their rivals.

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