If we are to see the thrilling battle we expect from Red Bull and Mercedes, Max Verstappen needs to capitalise on opportunities like the Imola Grand Prix this weekend.
After a three-week break since the opening race of the 2021 Formula One season, the action continues this weekend at the ‘Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix’, which will take place in the north of Italy.
The opening weekend of this year’s F1 proved that Red Bull has closed the gap to Mercedes and has a car that can compete with the ‘Silver Arrows’ this season.
Despite that, it also proved that Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton are capable of winning races. Verstappen failing to win the Bahrain GP from pole position could be a crucial moment for the season.
At the iconic Imola circuit in 2020 our partner @MercedesAMGF1 brought home a historic 7th consecutive championship win.
— UBS Formula 1 (@UBSf1) April 14, 2021
Mercedes’ strategy gave them the edge despite having the slower cars. Red Bull cannot afford to let that be a recurring story this season.
Trailing by 13 points in the constructor’s championship already, Christian Horner and his team have to begin reducing the deficit immediately.
Red Bull’s advantage
Verstappen and Sergio Perez head into this weekend’s race expecting rain. Most forecasts predict a reasonable chance of rain on Saturday to affect qualifying, while the track will almost certainly be wet at some point during the race.
The pair have excelled in wet conditions in the past, and are driving a car with more downforce compared to their Mercedes rivals.
Rule changes have changed the floor and rear of the cars this season. The high-rake angle of the Red Bull car design means their cars have lost less stability than their Mercedes opposition. The effect of this will be amplified by any rain that falls on the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari this weekend.
Along with improved horsepower from the Honda engine this year, Red Bull appears to have the best opportunity to take points this weekend.
After an impressive rise from P20 to P5 during the Bahrain GP, Perez looks likely to support Red Bull’s title challenge with points this weekend and throughout the season.
Verstappen, previously dubbed ‘Mad Max’ due to some hot-headed moments on track in the past, looks calmer and more mature this year. Returning to second place at the end of the Bahrain GP after an illegal overtake is something he may not have done a few years ago.
Red Bull must begin how they mean to go on
There has been a feeling among spectators in recent years that if Red Bull did not leave themselves with too much to do, they could be competing with Mercedes near the end of the season.
With this year being arguably the best opportunity for the Austrian team to win a world championship since the 2013 season, that can not be the story again.
A team that has won seven constructors championships in a row will develop throughout the season and get closer to Red Bull’s speed.
If Mercedes have a lead in the championship by the time they have caught up with Red Bull’s performance level, it is difficult to imagine them being caught.
This weekend is an opportunity for Verstappen to break his ‘Italian curse’ and make a statement. The 23-year-old cannot be playing catch-up to Hamilton. Red Bull cannot be playing catch-up to Mercedes.
Max Verstappen's record in Italy 🇮🇹
Monza 2015: 12th
Monza 2016: 7th
Monza 2017: 10th
Monza 2018: 5th
Monza 2019: 8th
Monza 2020: DNF
Mugello 2020: DNF
Imola 2020: DNF
Will he get his first podium in Italy this weekend? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/HYQe5vOWpR
— WTF1 (@wtf1official) April 13, 2021
A big performance from Sergio Perez is also necessary. He needs to be on the podium regularly this season. He will not have many better opportunities than this weekend.
This weekend can be a sign of things to come for better or for worse for Red Bull. Few races will carry such importance for them this year.