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Has Red Bull got Mercedes on the ropes?

SPIELBERG, Austria — Another qualifying session, another Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton front row. This one was nearly different as Valtteri Bottas set the second-fastest time, but the Finn will start fifth due to a penalty for spinning in the pit lane during Friday practice.

The good news for those hoping for a repeat of the thrilling French Grand Prix is that Bottas’ penalty clears the way for the two title protagonists to go head-to-head once more, but once again it’s Red Bull that appears to have the upper hand.

There was no doubting who was the fastest driver in qualifying at the Red Bull Ring.

Verstappen was 0.194s faster than Bottas and 0.226s clear of Hamilton. Both of the Dutchman’s qualifying laps in the final session of qualifying would have been quick enough to secure pole, but his first was ultimately the best of the day at 1:03.841.

“It’s been a very good weekend,” Verstappen said after stepping out of his Red Bull. “Again, in qualifying the car was really good to drive.

“It was not easy to deal with the traffic in the last few corners to get a clean run but I think that first lap in Q3 was good enough at the end. I had a good first sector.

“Super happy to be on pole here at home. It’s always nice to see a Red Bull car first here.”

Speaking about the gap to Verstappen, Hamilton added: “It was a difficult session for me. I generally have had a really good weekend so far, of course not as quick as Max, but I did a lot of work before the event and then the car was feeling great all day yesterday.

“But then I got into qualifying and the car just didn’t feel as good as it did in final practice. I don’t fully understand it so I wouldn’t say I was particularly that quick in qualifying, but nonetheless I am really happy to be where we are.

“But the next two-tenths [to Verstappen] are a little bit difficult [to find]. They’ve had straight-line speed again here this weekend, which is hard for us to compete with, but I am really proud of the team for just continuing to push hard, not leaving any stone unturned.”

As the two drivers pointed out, most of Verstappen’s advantage over Mercedes came in sector one, which is made up of the pit straight, Turn 1 and the long hill up to Turn 3. It is a sector that rewards straight-line speed, which the Red Bull appears to have unlocked plenty of since the introduction of a new Honda engine and slimline rear wing at the French Grand Prix.

There has been some speculation that the new engine may have delivered a performance advantage at a time when engine performance has been frozen by the regulations, but separating how much straight-line performance comes from the Honda power unit and how much comes from the lower drag rear wing on the Red Bull is hard to determine.

“It’s always the interaction between a strong power unit, lots of downforce and making the tyres work and I think they doing a good job,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said.

“We have already seen in Paul Ricard, where they were able to run a smaller wing while not using a lot in the twisty bit. So overall, it is just a very strong package.”

Engine, wing or tyres, the result is the same as Red Bull — or more specifically Verstappen — appears to be pulling a gap over Mercedes as the teams enter the second third of the season. In a year when a budget cap limits resources and the development focus of teams has already shifted to a major regulation change in 2022, the question is whether Mercedes will be able to fight back?

“It’s not a secret, there is a trend: they have the fastest package at the moment,” Wolff added. “We need to utilise our tools and our intelligence to understand our car, setup work, tyres and what it needs to deploy, and then we need to be faultless.

“If we can align those stars then we can win the championship. Whatever the pole positions or victories anyone has at this stage, we are just one-third of the way through the championship and there is a long way to go.

“They have three pole positions from eight races? Well, three is not so much, is it? So that is completely open, but from a data standpoint their package is clearly quicker at the moment.”

But Wolff was clear. Mercedes feels like it has been pegged back by regulation changes over the winter for 2021 and will not eat into its planned 2022 development time — which will likely determine its competitiveness for years to come under F1’s new rules — to chase this year’s title.

“We know that how the technical direction has evolved for 2021, we have been on the receiving side: fact,” he added. “We continue to stick to our principle of putting our resources into 2022 with all the consequences that could have on 2021.

“But this is a long game. We are not looking at a single race or single result, we are trying to optimise every single year and, having said that, we just need to get the best from our package.”

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