Mercedes Formula 1 boss Toto Wolff admits Red Bull is catching up to his team following a competitive Eifel Grand Prix qualifying.
For the 11th time in a row Mercedes topped qualifying this season, but it marked the closest the German manufacturer had come to being knocked off its perch as the kings of Saturday.
Max Verstappen made it a thrilling three-way fight for pole at the Nurburgring as Red Bull moved closer than ever to its chief rival.
It was the fifth time in the last eight races that Verstappen had qualified third on the grid but he was narrowly unable to end Mercedes’ 100% pole record in 2020.
The Dutchman ultimately ended up 0.293s off the lap time which saw Valtteri Bottas claim his third pole position of the year from Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton, but unlike the majority of qualifying sessions this season, Verstappen had looked like a pole contender throughout.
Verstappen’s pace was eye-catching on Saturday. Having topped Q1, he was the fastest driver during the first runs in Q3, before Hamilton, and then Bottas, usurped the Red Bull driver with late improvements.
Had Verstappen been able to replicate his best effort from Q2 – a 1m25.467 – it would be he, not Hamilton, lining up on the front row alongside Bottas. It was Red Bull’s outright fastest lap and just 0.198s off Mercedes’ quickest.
Red Bull has been quietly chipping away at its deficit to Mercedes in recent races following some encouraging performances at Mugello and Sochi, and it seems that a combination of updates, and Friday’s curtailed running due to fog, helped the team cut the gap further.
It has been a trademark of recent campaigns for Red Bull to start off slowly before making large gains in the second half of seasons to dramatically reduce the gap, and occasionally get on level terms with Mercedes.
In 2019, Red Bull appeared to steal a march on its rivals following the summer break and often had the fastest overall package compared to Mercedes in the latter rounds of the year, with Verstappen grabbing top spot in qualifying on two occasions and winning in Brazil.
Speaking after qualifying, Mercedes team principal Wolff indicated that his side had begun to tail off development on its W11 to start focusing on next year, but acknowledged the increased threat coming from Red Bull.
“We tend to see this pattern that Red Bull catches up towards the end of the season,” Wolff said.
“I guess it’s good for the championship. We are deploying the strategy that we believe is right, balancing next year and this year.
“We can see the results on track but we need to be vigilant and accept that the competition will increase over the last few races.”
Despite admitting he was disappointed not to have taken pole, Verstappen was buoyed by Red Bull’s performance at the Nurburgring and credited its strongest qualifying of the season to the team’s latest upgrade package.
That was despite Red Bull getting a full handling of its new parts after the loss of running on Friday, with the cancellation of both practice sessions preventing the Milton Keynes squad from properly evaluating the upgrade.
“We brought a few upgrades, so the car is working a bit better,” he explained.
“Of course, with only having run today there are still a lot of things to go through and analyse and optimise as well, because of the understeer I had in the car.
“But it’s definitely a good step forward, so we are on the right way. I just hope we can keep heading into that direction and keep improving.”
Albon, who has struggled with instability in his RB16 throughout 2020, enjoyed a much-improved showing as he took fifth, having been pipped late on by Ferrari’s staring Charles Leclerc.
The Thai racer could also feel the benefits of what he described as “quite a big” upgrade.
“It’s a whole part really, bits and pieces front to back,” Albon said.
“To be honest, we can’t compare it to the previous package without the Friday running. The plan was to run the cars old package versus the new package.
“So, with limited running, we’ve kind of just started on it. But it feels good. It feels quick. It was feeling pretty strong straightaway.
“I was happy with it. And I think it’s a good step forward. It put us closer obviously to the Mercs.”
Albon did urge some caution, explaining that the characteristics of the Eifel venue, coupled with particularly low temperatures seen over the weekend, may have played to the strengths of Red Bull’s car and denied Mercedes from unleashing its true potential.
“I don’t want to say Mercedes struggled but they don’t seem as quick,” he added. “When you look at the other teams as well it’s not like we’re miles ahead of everyone else. I would put it in that sense.”
Red Bull’s gains in recent weeks highlight the team’s determination to succeed in its quest to mount a sustained title challenge to Mercedes, despite the impending departure of power unit supplier Honda.
While it does need to finalise a succession plan regarding its engines from 2022 and beyond, Red Bull is set to be boosted by an all-new Honda power unit for next season, which it hopes will help it further cut Mercedes’ current advantage in the power stakes.
“We are committed to 2021 so it’s full force, full effort for the rest of this year but also 2021,” team principal Christian Horner insisted on Friday.
“It’s great that Honda really stepped up for next year as well. They’re not looking at leaving on a whimper.
“They really want to push throughout next season as well which is a real fighting spirit, both within Sakura and within Milton Keynes.”
Red Bull is proving a persistent thorn in Mercedes’ side, and providing it can continue its recent upward trajectory, it could well make the life of F1’s reigning world champions that bit harder.