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Lessons Mercedes & Red Bull Can Learn from F1 2013

The date is Sunday July 28th, 2013.

Lewis Hamilton takes a dominant first win for Mercedes in searing temperatures at the Hungaroring, ahead of the Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen and Championship leader Sebastian Vettel in the Red Bull. The win fuelled expectations that Mercedes and Hamilton could challenge Vettel's bid for a fourth consecutive world title after the four-week summer break.

With the opening race of 2021 in Bahrain suggesting that Hamilton will be going toe to toe with Max Verstappen for this years drivers title, and both Mercedes and Red Bull having to fight on two fronts - developing this season's car whilst also focusing on the biggest regulation changes in years for 2022 - there are many parallels to draw on from 2013 that may just give us an indication of what's to come in this year's imminent development war, and potential implications for the years ahead.

2013 - Red Bull Development and Domination

Championship standings after the Hungarian GP

  1. Vettel (Red Bull) - 172 points

  2. Raikkonen (Lotus) - 134 points

  3. Alonso (Ferrari) - 133 points

  4. Hamilton (Mercedes) - 124 points

Vettel was still the clear title favourite after Hungary despite Hamilton's win, but no-one expected the level of domination that was to come.

After the month-long summer break, Red Bull wiped the floor with Vettel winning all nine of the remaining races, starting at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium and culminating in Brazil; never before or since has a driver achieved so many consecutive wins within one season.

Team-mate Mark Webber, retiring at the end of the season, failed to win a race all season but did manage 5 podiums in the post-summer races which boosted him to third in the drivers standings and helped to clinch the Constructors Championship in India with 3 races to go - the same point at which Vettel clinched his drivers title.

Championship standings at the end of the season

  1. Vettel (Red Bull) - 397 points

  2. Alonso (Ferrari) - 242 points

  3. Webber (Red Bull) - 199 points

  4. Hamilton (Mercedes) - 189 points

It was evident that Red Bull had been developing the 2013 car heavily over the summer and throughout the rest of the season, leaving rivals Ferrari, Lotus and Mercedes trailing in their wake.

Mercedes had taken 8 pole positions in the first 11 races of 2013 and Nico Rosberg took wins in Monaco and Britain, as well as Hamilton's Hungarian victory, but both drivers often struggled desperately with tyre degradation in races, sending them backwards through the field.

Hamilton's win suggested, with track temperatures of 35 degrees celsius on the day, that Mercedes had overcome their difficulties, but the car lacked pace after summer and the drivers only managed 3 podiums between them.

It wasn't until the following year that a possible explanation for this came to the fore...

2014 - Realisation of the Mercedes Juggernaut

2014 saw the biggest set of regulation changes in recent F1 history, with the V8 engines replaced by V6 Turbo-Hybrids. As soon as pre-season testing began in Barcelona, it was clear that Mercedes had dealt with the regulations far better than any other team, and in particular their engine was a class above its rivals.

The Silver Arrows would have won every single one of the 19 races in 2014 was it not for brake issues in Canada, wet weather and an unfortunately-timed safety car in Hungary, and a collision between Hamilton and Rosberg at Belgium.

Red Bull, equipped with Renault engines as they had been for their championship winning years (2010-2013), were Mercedes' closest challenger but were no match for pace. Vettel's new team-mate Daniel Ricciardo took victory on each of the three occasions above to prevent a Mercedes clean sweep, but there was no doubting that the Brackley-based outfit had established a supreme advantage that wouldn't be easy to catch up with.

Despite occasional challenges from Red Bull and Ferrari, an advantage of a lesser extent has remained throughout the Turbo-Hybrid era, with Mercedes taking a record seven consecutive drivers titles and seeking an eighth in 2021.

The Here and Now - Development War Dilemma

The dominance of Red Bull and Mercedes in post-summer 2013 and the 2014 season respectively - two of the most dominant periods in F1 history - show us clearly that Red Bull continued developing the 2013 car throughout the second half of the season, whereas Mercedes switched focus and invested the vast majority of their resources into the 2014 car much earlier.

Red Bull will surely have learned the lessons of seven years of playing catch-up, and will be eager to avoid a similar fate as F1 Approaches 2022 and the new regulations, which are likely to shape the pecking order for years to come.

The start of the 2021 season may well have thrown carefully planned development strategies for both teams into disarray, with Max Verstappen and Red Bull suddenly looking just as fast, if not faster, than Hamilton and Mercedes.

For the first time in the Turbo-Hybrid era, Mercedes face the prospect of another car and driver genuinely capable of mounting a sustained title bid - something that was highly unexpected considering the very limited regulation changes between 2020 and 2021, and Mercedes enjoying its most dominant year in 2020 for 5 years.

Both teams face a tricky challenge, knowing when to pull the plug on 2021 car development and focus on 2022. Red Bull will be desperate to finally halt the Mercedes juggernaut, whilst Mercedes themselves remain as motivated as ever to keep their unprecedented monopoly on world titles.

Gone are the days of the early 2000s when wealthy teams could pump all possible resources towards both fronts - the newly introduced budget cap of $145 million for 2021 prevents any team flexing its financial muscle in order to dominate.

There are many other factors to consider. The most successful teams are restricted to less wind tunnel and computational flow dynamics time, on a sliding scale - so Mercedes currently get 5% less time than Red Bull for development on aerodynamic testing for 2022, who get 5% less than the third placed team from 2020 (McLaren), and so on.

2022 - Return of the Sleeping Giant?

The team that might be relishing the prospect of a 2021 likely development war between the two top teams is Ferrari, who had an abysmal 2020 season with the team finishing 6th in the constructors championship.

The upside for the Scuderia is that, despite making a big leap forwards for 2021, they know that they have no prospect of fighting for the 2021 championship and are unlikely to scrape a race win either - so there is no need to put sizeable resources into this year.

All Ferrari development will be focused on 2022, and with 25% more aerodynamic testing allowed than Mercedes - a 'reward' for its poor 2020 showing - it should be an expectation for the team to deliver a car that is at the very least capable of fighting for race wins come the new season.

Could Ferrari be the next dominant force? It's certainly a possibility. But a dominant force has almost always been present in 21st century F1, and every fan will be praying that 2022 avoids one team towering above the rest, bringing the fans close racing across the entire grid.

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