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. kaustav said on 6th August 2013, 18:38

    i am quite amused with the graph u presented.its clearly not representative of the actual pace of the teams.But i expected a better analysis including tyre degradations as they truly represent the race pace which is why Hamilton and Mercedes won in Hungary and are now a growing threat to Red bull.

    For example,The lotus and the Ferrari’s were supposedly the slowest of the top 4 teams in Melbourne according to the graph,yet they performed excellently there.Also in Canada ,It seems Ferrari had the fastest car closely followed by Mercedes,but Vettel bludgeoned his opponents to victory in that race,with pace to spare.(and the graph points out that Red Bull were slowest of the top 4!!!!!!!!!!!)

    Mercedes may have turn a corner relating to their tyre issues,but somehow the second half of the season, for the past 3 years , has been their weakness. I think its too early to draw conclusions.Even Spa and Monza wont give us a clear picture coz they are not really to the Red Bulls likings. Its Singapore and the run-away races after that where Mercs have to set up a defense to be able to create a sense of panic in the Red Bull garage.Everyone knows that’s where Vettel and Red Bull are simply unbeatabale.

    • Obviously the data has it’s limitations: that is a chart purely based on qualifying times I do believe, which would flatter Mercedes and make Lotus and Ferrari look more average than they actually are.

  2. Ed Marques (@edmarques) said on 6th August 2013, 19:10

    Mercedes probably will have the upper hand on the next two races.
    But after that, they’ll to up their game even more.

  3. Well, there’s a bit more to it than just building a quick car and starting at the front. The 2012 McLaren was the fastest car of that season, and LH started on the front row in the first four GP’s, including twice on pole. Results – third, third, third, and eighth. Just because Red Bull/Vettel make it look easy doesn’t mean it is.

    Reliability and weather will probably decide this season. So far it’s been one of the driest F1 years in a long time, with zero rain on Sunday in the first ten races. That’s unlikely to continue. The RB car has proven itself fragile over the years, with numerous problems already this season. Vettel most likely has another mechanical DNF in his not so distant future. The Merc’s have historically been unreliable and NR’s car has been plagued with problems this season. So far LH has been lucky, but you have to expect he’s going to have car issues as well at some point.

    All in all, I think Kimi (in particular) and Nando (a little less so) are still in with a decent shot at this.

  4. This reminds me a lot about the same time last year. Suddenly everybody where talking as if the championship was between Lewis and Seb only. I remember being involved in discussions in which I was ridiculed for mentioning that Kimi and Fernando were still ahead of Lewis. Strangely he finished the season behind both of them.

    Did any of you even realize that he is still behind both of them now? Surely Mercedes cheated their way a quantum leap forward but they are still behind in the standings – even though Lewis is driving one of them.

    I wonder if this discussion is really about Mercedes at all or just about who you want to win?

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 6th August 2013, 22:15


      I wonder if this discussion is really about Mercedes

      Well, no, as you can see I wrote:

      It’s not yet a two-horse race in the championship.

      • @keithcollantine well, I wasn’t really shooting at you (this time :) ) since you also began with the header; “How can Mercedes….” but more at the general discussion in which Merc is almost already crowned as soon as Lewis wins a race or two. If Nico and Lewis had swapped points it would probably sound different.

        The stats of the increased Merc performance are fine but I expect a different scenario after the break in which Red Bull and Ferrari have improved the most while Merc could be at plateau. I personally hope that Lotus is way ahead but I am just not naive enough to actually believe in that.

    • Laminator (@laminator) said on 6th August 2013, 22:57

      @poul Brother, where were you.. +1

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

    The Mclaren was very clearly the quickest car in the second half of 2009 – four poles to just one for RB. And LH racked up more points in the second half of that year then anyone else, including Vettel, so it had more than simply great qualifying pace.

    Getting back to the present, it’s clear the Merc’s are the best cars on Saturdays. But it’s premature to claim that they can “consistently outrace” the RB’s (or anyone else) on Sundays based on a single data point called the Hungarian GP.

  6. andae23 (@andae23) said on 6th August 2013, 20:59

    The question whether Mercedes are the biggest threat to Red Bull is quite an interesting one, because I honestly don’t know. Both the Mercedes and Lotus car are a very specialized beast, one is qualifying king, the other is degradation king. Both teams have one superb driver. Therefore it depends a bit on how the season unfolds: do the coming tracks favour Lotus or Mercedes? I’m inclined to say ‘Mercedes’, but as I said, I don’t know.

    And never count out Alonso!

    But to be perfectly honest, I think if anyone else but Vettel will win the title this year, someone has to slow that Red Bull down. If Vettel keeps up this amazing form, in my book this will be his finest championship so far.

  7. Kingshark (@kingshark) said on 6th August 2013, 21:25


    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, Malaysia and Canada – rain affected the final practice and qualifying sessions in which the fastest times of the weekend are usually set, skewing the data.

    You forgot one. ;-)

  8. kbdavies (@kbdavies) said on 6th August 2013, 22:15

    If anything, the graph shows that Red Bull and Lotus are converging on Mercedes single lap pace. If i was Ross Brawn, i would be mighty worried; as Mercs race pace, no matter how improved, is not a match for Red Bull or Lotus yet. As for Ferrari, they need an inquest urgently!

  9. Giorgos L. (@lykace) said on 7th August 2013, 1:20

    Mercedes has the quickest car so far and a driver (Lewis) fully hungry for another title (that’s the reason left McLaren). So there are all the good signs for a starring second half. The gap between him and Vettel can be “easily” covered. Now they know the tyres as a fact of improving the race pace, they have a reliable and fast car and ambition… Why not? Good Luck Lewis!!!Always support you!!

  10. BiogRacer said on 7th August 2013, 16:47

    Vettel’s prowess cannot be denied, but Hamilton’s a beast and is his match. His quality is beginning to show as he edges further away from Rosberg. Although I think 48 pts puts Vettel slightly out of reach over 9 races (reliability or lack thereof not withstanding), Hamilton is going to take it to him. Pleanty of Hamilton tracks remaining on the calendar: Spa, Monza, Singapore, Abu Dhabi. Vettel seems to go well in India, but is the only ‘Vettel track’ remaining IMO. Brazil, Korea, USA are neutral ground. Obviously this based only on my opinion (interested to hear yours…). The RB and Merc cars are very close on pace so I think the drivers will make the difference this year. When’s the last time we F1 fans could truly say that?
    However it shakes out, the cream is certainly rising. Vettel and Hamilton look to be set for a great battle. They seem to have edged away from the Alonsos and Raikkonens by just a touch, and established an even larger gap to their very capable teammates.

  11. tharris19 (@tharris19) said on 7th August 2013, 19:05

    I will with hold any comment about Mercedes form until I see what they do at Spa. I am more concerned about the true tyre performance than I am about reliability of the engines.

  12. DaveD (@daved) said on 8th August 2013, 15:29

    As a Hamilton fan, and now Merc, I wish this was true…but I’m not convinced yet. I think the high speed corners at Spa and Monza are still going to show that Merc is cooking the rear tires. I hope you’re right, but I really doubt it.

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