How Mercedes can beat Red Bull at their own game

2013 F1 season

Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull, Nurburgring, 2013There’s no great mystery to how Red Bull have managed to rack up three consecutive constructors’ championships in a row, nor how Sebastian Vettel has used it as a springboard to a hat-trick of drivers’ championships.

Red Bull’s cars have consistently been the fastest over a single lap, meaning they have more often than not started from pole position. So while Adrian Newey’s downforce monsters tend to be on the draggy side, knocking a few kph off their top speed at most tracks, the precious advantage of starting first has helped them rack up win after win and title after title.

But the emergence of Mercedes as a force this year could be about to change that. They’ve been the team to beat in qualifying this year, and at the Hungarian Grand Prix they sent Red Bull a warning that they have little to fear from them on race day too.

Teams performance in the first ten races of 2013

This table compares the fastest lap time set by every team at each race weekend in 2013 (in any session) and shows how far each team was off the quickest lap time, as a percent:

Australia Malaysia China Bahrain Spain Monaco Canada Britain Germany Hungary
Red Bull 0 0.25 0.91 0.28 0.42 0.14 0.53 0.67 0.12 0.05
Ferrari 0.98 0.49 0.32 0.36 0.62 1.28 0 1.53 0.48 0.51
McLaren 2.78 0.66 1.38 1.49 1.33 1.71 0.81 2.28 0.97 1.46
Lotus 0.53 0.39 0.29 0.88 0.57 1.28 0.35 1.5 0.51 0.26
Mercedes 0.48 0 0 0 0 0 0.02 0 0 0
Sauber 2.65 1.55 1.88 1.72 2.07 2.77 2.21 2.86 0.93 1.5
Force India 1.78 0.41 1.91 0.98 1.61 2.04 0.77 1.26 1.45 1.49
Williams 3.43 1.22 2.81 1.92 3.15 2.69 2.01 3.07 2.57 1.8
Toro Rosso 2.26 1.59 1.6 1.78 1.75 2.47 1 1.28 0.92 1.43
Caterham 4.96 2.92 4.59 3.2 4.88 5.45 3.23 4.75 3.96 4.56
Marussia 4.41 2.33 4.25 4.17 4.95 5.44 3.01 5.02 4.1 5.54

It’s clear to see the W04 has usually been the quickest car over a single lap this year. Significantly on the two occasions where it wasn’t – in Australia and Canada – rain affected the final practice and qualifying sessions in which the fastest times of the weekend are usually set, skewing the data.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Hungaroring, 2013It’s no stretch of the imagination to suggest Mercedes have had the quickest car over a single lap at every race this year.

They’ve duly converted that into pole position in seven of the ten races so far. However their win rate has been the opposite: just three out of ten.

The reason for that has often been that the Mercedes has overheated its tyres in the race and dropped back. At Monaco, where tyre wear is far lower, they locked out the front row of the grid, held their rivals up and won. At Silverstone tyres were exploding left, right and centre, then Vettel’s gearbox failed and victory fell into Nico Rosberg’s lap.

But Hungary might just have been a turning point. On a viciously hot day, when the W04 was expected to cook its Pirellis, Lewis Hamilton converted pole position into victory. It helped that Vettel spent the early part of the race in traffic, but in the second half the Mercedes was a match for the Red Bull on pace even when both were running in clear air.

What’s more, the Mercedes does not have the straight-line speed disadvantage of the Red Bull. Hamilton easily passed Jenson Button in the race while Vettel, giving away 10kph to the Mercedes on the straight, lost a dozen laps staring at Button’s rear wing.

This will surely have set alarm bells ringing in Milton Keynes. For the first time since early 2009 Red Bull have a rival who can consistently out-qualify and out-race them too. We could be in a fascinating second half of the championship as the silver cars chip away at their rivals’ advantage in the points standings.

Ferrari and Lotus

Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus, Hungaroring, 2013It’s not yet a two-horse race in the championship. Ferrari and Lotus have been able to outstrip Red Bull and Mercedes on race pace on occasions in the season so far.

Their weakness is in qualifying where they are usually fighting for the third row, from where they are finding it increasingly hard to win races.

Lotus had the edge in the last two races, putting the heat on Red Bull and Mercedes, but falling short of victory. But Ferrari are clearly growing frustrated at getting close, but not quite close enough, to consistent race-winning pace.

It looked like Ferrari had finally cracked it when Fernando Alonso won two of the opening five rounds. But since then they’ve slipped back and have not been shy about explaining the reasons why.

Last weekend president Luca di Montezemolo accused the FIA of letting Mercedes off the hook over their controversial test for Pirelli ahead of their breakthrough Monaco win, and reiterated past criticisms about Formula One’s rules being too focused on aerodynamics, an area where Red Bull have clearly excelled.

Another explanation for Ferrari’s continued struggles is their wind tunnel. The team have been using Toyota’s equipment in Cologne while their own tunnel in Maranello is worked on to resolve the correlation problems they’ve been experiencing.

One advantage Lotus and Ferrari do enjoy over their rivals is reliability. Red Bull have already lost one win to a technical failure this year and Rosberg’s Mercedes has let him down three times on Sunday. While the E21 and F138 have not been free from glitches, they’ve only had one race-ending failure between them.

The rest of the teams

Nico Hulkenberg, Sauber, Hungaroring, 2013McLaren’s problems this season have been well-documented. Slow progress is being made and the MP4-28s are increasingly found among the lower reaches of the points-scorers in the midfield.

They appear to have been helped by Force India’s struggles with the Kevlar-belted tyres, first introduced in Germany then revised for the last race in Hungary. Paul di Resta, a consistent points-scorer earlier in the season, was eliminated in Q1 at the Hungaroring, perplexed by his inability to make the current tyres work.

Sauber, however, have made a clear step forward after a horrible start to the season. Their tyre performance looked much better in Hungary and only a drive-through penalty kept Nico Hulkenberg from a points finished. The beleaguered team look set for a more positive second half of the season.

At the back of the field Caterham and Marussia continue to show little sign of getting on terms with the midfield. The latter had a dreadful weekend in Hungary, struggling massively with the tyres. Having begun the year ahead of Caterham they were lapped by their rivals at the Hungaroring.

As we pass the mid-point in the season all the teams now have to grapple with the vital question of how much of their resources to divert to next year’s radical overhaul of the rules. For some, like struggling McLaren, the benefit of focusing early on next year is clear.

But Ross Brawn has said Mercedes will wait and see how they perform at the next two races – on high-speed tracks which should suit their car – before making that call. By then the championship situation could look every different.

Over to you

Are Mercedes the greatest threat to Red Bull in the second half of the season? What do you expect Lotus and Ferrari to achieve? Have your say in the comments.

2013 F1 season

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Images ?? Red Bull/Getty, Daimler/Hoch Zwei, Lotus/LAT, Sauber

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142 comments on How Mercedes can beat Red Bull at their own game

  1. I agree with most of the article, but I think it might be reading a bit too much into the Hungary result, and it’s not at all clear who is going to be the fastest on the new tyres.

    Vettel was very close to Hamilton in qualifying, and might well have taken pole if he’d hooked up a really good lap in Q3.

    but in the second half the Mercedes was a match for the Red Bull on pace even when both were running in clear air

    Both Red Bulls were carrying some damage in the second half of the race. Hamilton had also run most of the race in clear air, with all the associated benefits to tyre and engine.

    I think the jury is still out as to who is quickest on the new tyres. Lotus’ one lap performance also looked pretty good.

    The real loser is Ferrari.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 6th August 2013, 17:57


      Both Red Bulls were carrying some damage in the second half of the race.

      Fair point but Vettel’s damage was not all that substantial. And Mercedes having better pace once the fuel load had started to come down is consistent with what we saw in Germany.

  2. On the note of Red Bull’s late-season form, I have compiled statistics on their points scored as a percentage of the theoretical maximum on each track this season since the RB5’s introduction in 2009. N.B races where there were retirements have had the maximum scores adjusted to accommodate for this – one retirement = max. 25 points, two retirements = not counted. Malaysia 2009 is also excluded as 75% race distance was not reached. Number in brackets equates to the number of races competed in where at least one car finished (Australia 2009 is excluded for it only serves to skew the data).

    Australia (4) – 58%
    Malaysia (4) – 78%
    China (4) – 68%
    Bahrain (4) – 59%
    Spain (5) – 62%
    Monaco (5) – 81%
    Canada (4) – 64%
    Britain (5) – 84%
    Germany* (5) – 64%
    Hungary (5) – 69%
    Belgium (4) – 60%
    Italy (3) – 52%
    Singapore (4) – 71%
    Korea (2) – 97%
    Japan (4) – 70%
    India (2) – 90%
    Abu Dhabi (4) – 73%
    Brazil (4) – 83%

    *The German GP is staged over two race tracks, so data may not be entirely useful.

    I have omitted USA as only one race has been staged, so an accurate judgment cannot be reasonably obtained. 2009 points have been converted to the 2010 scoring system for ease of calculation.

    Obviously there are inaccuracies caused by cars not retiring but being affected by reliability problems/team errors but to prevent over-complication I have simply counted all results where each car reached the chequered flag towards the total 43 points (a 1-2 finish) and ones where one car finished towards 25 points (P1).

    I’ll allow you to make judgements for yourself as to where their form shows.

  3. Daniel (@collettdumbletonhall) said on 6th August 2013, 14:50

    Red Bull are usually very strong in the flyovers though, it’s going to be close!

  4. nidzovski (@nidzovski) said on 6th August 2013, 15:02

    The biggest problem/help to Mercedes could come from Ferrari/Lotus, if they can match Red Bull’s pace but not Mercedes’s pace than they could be an asset to germans, but if Vettel win another 2-3 races than it’s all over.

  5. DaveW (@dmw) said on 6th August 2013, 15:16

    I don’t agree that Hungary was a turning piont. It was hot. And people expected what they expected. But Hungary has not big fast sweepers. So Mercedes’ performance was true to form. Mercedes suffers in the combination of heat and sustained dynamic loads. Accordingly I predict that the season will play out in this pattern. Mercedes will be very good at Monza, Singapore, Spa if the weather is cool. They should also be great at Abu Dhabi. The will be nowhere in Suzuka with hot weather and Austin. Korea is a mixed bag so I expect them to be mediocre there. But if it’s cold then look out. There are about 4 races left that Mercedes should win. But the problem is that there is no one around to keep Vettel off the podium whether or not they win. They need to outperform a bit at a couple tracks like India and Austin, and hope for Vettel to have a couple rough patches.

    • Mike Dee (@mike-dee) said on 6th August 2013, 17:37

      I agree with this – the jury is still out on the tyres. Yes, it was hot in Hungary. But the track characteristics would have a much bigger impact on tyre temperatures than the ambient temperatures.

  6. sgarforth (@sgarforth) said on 6th August 2013, 15:21

    If I recall correctly, Hamilton has a really good record in the Asian tracks, barring vehicle failures he suffered at McLaren… I always seem to recall him doing well till a mysterious part breaks down (off the top of my head, gear box issue in Japan, car breaking down in Singapore (or just getting driven into), pole position in Korea)… I think if Mercedes have figured out their tire issues, and still qualify up front… Hamilton is a tough customer to overtake, and Vettel is known to get cagey when he isn’t running away with the race. Granted, for Mercedes to mount a comeback, they would need consistent form from Hamilton, which can be difficult at times. But this is done race-by-race, if they win both Spa and Monza, and Vettel has just one DNF… they’d be in the hunt… Lewis loves being in the chase. This could be thrilling. I’m sure Red Bull would want to stomp down this “mercedes momentum” as soon as possible. RBR, like Vettel, aren’t very good when they aren’t comfortably in front.

    • David-A (@david-a) said on 6th August 2013, 17:06

      RBR, like Vettel, aren’t very good when they aren’t comfortably in front.

      Being in front is what makes anyone “very good”.

    • Libellula (@ladyf1fanatic) said on 6th August 2013, 18:36

      Yeah, me looking forward to an exciting 2nd part of season! ;-)

    • If I recall correctly, Hamilton has a really good record in the Asian tracks

      No, I wouldn’t say that. At best he matches his overall record on those tracks, he does not have an outstanding record there. I think his record there is best described as inconsistent.

      RBR, like Vettel, aren’t very good when they aren’t comfortably in front.

      RBR, and Vettel, were comfortably behind for virtually the entire 2010 season. How did that work out?

  7. Rigi (@rigi) said on 6th August 2013, 15:40

    it’s intresting how all of mercedes mechanical failures have been on rosbergs car. given hamiltons way more agressive driving style this is an odd fact.

    the way i see it, the rest of the season will probably suit red bull the most, especially vettel who won almost all of the asian races last year. only monza and spa will probably suit mercedes better, but who knows?

    perhaps one of them decide to call off the 2013 season and start developing the 2014 car (unlikely though, they both have enough money and staff to create two cars at a time).

    i still think mercedes doesn’t deserve the spot they’re in right now, after the whole testing stuff, and i’m not a fan of red bull either, so i’ll have either of them winning the constuctors title, as for the drivers, my hopes are still with raikkonen.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 6th August 2013, 20:58


      It’s interesting how all of Mercedes’ mechanical failures have been on Rosberg’s car. Given Hamilton’s way more aggressive driving style this is an odd fact.

      Because driving style is almost negligible as a cause of car failures these days. Decades ago that wasn’t the case but now we have semi-automatic gearboxes, rev limiters and cars bristling with hundreds of sensors which give teams warning their cars could be about to fail.

  8. mantresx (@mantresx) said on 6th August 2013, 16:20

    So what about the constructors championship?
    If Mercedes improves their reliability I think they can win it, simply because Nico is more closely matched to Lewis than Mark is to Sebastian, is not that hard to close a 69 points gap if they’re consistent enough.

    • Vic (@hendrix666) said on 6th August 2013, 19:39

      I think its a hard road for WCC for Mercedes. If they come first and second for next 4 or 5 races then its possible, assuming Webber and Vettel will score points each race too, but they need a couple of races where they seriously dent RB’s lead. A double DNF or two by RB would help greatly! ;)

  9. Michael Brown (@) said on 6th August 2013, 16:42

    Well, I never expected Mercedes to be the team to challenge Red Bull, but it looks like those revised tires are helping them. Those revised tires are changing the running order, though.

  10. montreal95 (@montreal95) said on 6th August 2013, 16:49

    I might defy convention here but in my opinion the greatest threat for RBR is Lotus not Mercedes. The Mercedes didn’t beat the RBR on pure pace in Hungary, both RBR’s were compromised in that race and the nature of the track didn’t help them to recover. Also, the temperatures, while high, were nowhere near the records as was expected. I expect Mercedes to maintain their qualy advantage but don’t think that is enough to offset the other 3 teams race pace advantage, especially Lotus. By race pace I mean not the fastest race lap but how far can a driver abuse the tires without ruining them.

    Lotus on the other hand are ascloseasthat to be a serious threat to RBR. In Hungary they qualified 3rd and 6th, in the wrong order(for them) with Kimi having more trouble to get heat in the new/old front tires for qualy. It’s to be expected, as in a recent interview Mark Slade, who has worked with him a lot during his career said the following with regards to Kimi’s driving style: “it’s very easy on the tires, particularly THE FRONTS). So if Kimi improves to Grosjean qualy level with the new tires(no reason why he can’t adapt, remember the qualy score is 8-2 to Kimi so far), then logically he will win races this year

  11. JDPenn said on 6th August 2013, 17:30

    I like the parody at the moment. With the cars being able to pass, for me I enjoy it more. Red Bull has a slight edge on race day. I like Mercedes qualifying and racing near the front. If Lotus could get in some qualifying laps that would get them nearer to the front of the grid. Then there would be a four horse race. As it is Lotus seems to come for a fight on race day. Ferrari’s are in the chase as well well with consistency, It’s the first time in years all of the cars seem close. All of the drivers are very close as well with Vettel having a small edge. Seeing Hamilton come back to form is good. Alonso has always been reliable, So has Raikkonen. Rosberg is coming into his own. Grojean has been impressive. Webber he has his days. Vettel is in his head.

  12. liam (@) said on 6th August 2013, 17:34

    as long as Merc keep taking points of RBR I see Alonso or Kimi stealing the show.

  13. scunnyman (@scunnyman) said on 6th August 2013, 17:51

    Is Rosberg going to sit back and help Hamilton take the fight to Vettel?

  14. David not Coulthard (@) said on 6th August 2013, 18:04

    For the first time since early 2009 Red Bull have a rival who can consistently out-qualify and out-race them too.

    And this time around……it’s also Tyrrell!

  15. Libellula (@ladyf1fanatic) said on 6th August 2013, 18:21

    @keithcollantine: To the untrained eyes of this female F1 fan who’s not a stat expert, could you tell us how to analyze the graphic above (team performance after 10 races) in particular including the 4 top teams? I’ve selected RedBull, Lotus & Ferrari (the lines of this trio go up and down) while Mercedes is almost linear in the table… Thank you kindly!

    • @ladyf1fanatic basically the line which is at the bottom of the table is the fastest car for that race (hence why the Mercedes is lowest in the table in most instances). The subsequent distance between the other lines and the bottom therefore dictates how far off the pace they were of the lead runner, and of course the further down you are the faster you were.

      Also, if you click on the small dot where the line bends you can see how far off the pace as a numerical figure the other teams were off the lead pace, at the juncture between the horizontal coloured lines and the vertical lines of the grid. Hope that helps!

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