Max Verstappen’s victory in the 2020 Formula 1 season finale in Abu Dhabi provided what neutrals hope will mark the beginning of the end of Mercedes’ dominance. 

While the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix ultimately delivered a dull race, Verstappen produced some excitement during a thrilling Q3 showdown under the lights of the Yas Marina Circuit to snatch the first non-Mercedes powered pole of 2020 in one of the tightest qualifying sessions of the season. 

On race day, the Mercedes duo of Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton - still recovering from the effects of having contracted coronavirus - had no answer to Verstappen’s pace as he converted pole position into his second win of the year with a dominant display. 

“You know you can bank on him,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said of his lead driver. “You know he's going to give it everything, you know that he can always surprise you.”

It marked a significant result for Red Bull, who enjoyed a rare triumph over Mercedes on merit during a V6 hybrid era the German manufacturer has dominated, and at a venue Mercedes had held a 100% win record for six years.

Slow starts have become something of an unwanted trait for Red Bull in recent seasons. Things were no different in 2020 as it again began poorly and struggled to get a handle on its tricky RB16 challenger. Red Bull subsequently failed in its bid to challenge for the world championships, with Mercedes wrapping up yet another historic title double to maintain its unchallenged streak of success since 2014.

But strong progress made in the second half of the season saw Red Bull inch closer to Mercedes, and the hard work was rewarded with victory in the last race of the year, which has provided a confidence boost for the Milton Keynes squad as it aims to carry that winning feeling and momentum into 2021. 

“We’ve just been chipping away at the car and over the last third of the year we made genuine progress,” Horner explained. “We were unlucky in Imola, Turkey didn’t go our way, the first Bahrain [race] was decent and the second Bahrain [race] we were unlucky. 

“To beat Mercedes in a straight fight and be the first team to beat Mercedes at this circuit since winning ourselves in 2013 is a great achievement, and it gives the whole team a huge amount of energy as we head into what will be a pretty short winter.

"Mercedes have a great strength in depth, of course we expect them to be very, very strong. But if we can build on this result and this momentum hopefully we can give them a harder time.”

Red Bull’s performance caught the eye of seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton, who although not signed up to continue racing for Mercedes as yet, is fully expecting a much tougher fight on his hands in 2021 as he looks to take a record-breaking eighth world title. 

“We have a fight on our hands next year," Hamilton said. "Without doubt these guys are going to be strong. This car he [Verstappen] is driving now is next year's car pretty much and the same for us, so I am excited for that battle we are going to get.”

Part of the reason Red Bull was able to cut the deficit to Mercedes in the closing stages of 2020 was because the German manufacturer effectively ended development on its W11 after the Belgian Grand Prix in August, choosing instead to look towards 2021. 

Teams will be carrying over their 2020 chassis into the upcoming campaign as part of a cost-saving exercise to help combat the financial hit brought on by the pandemic. 

While Red Bull is expecting to transfer around 60 percent of its current car into its 2021 design - dubbed the ‘RB16B’ - there are a number of significant aerodynamic changes coming into effect in a bid to cut downforce. 

These rule developments have Mercedes concerned, with the reigning world champions downplaying suggestions that its dominance is guaranteed to continue into the upcoming campaign. 

Red Bull’s continued development across 2020 was focused on how to get the most out of its car as it looks to address the weaknesses of its RB16 package and rectify them to ensure it gets out of the blocks quickly in 2021. Horner hopes the team’s learnings from last season will translate into stronger on-track results earlier this time around. 

"I think we’ve improved the car significantly and understood where those issues are,” he explained. “Hopefully that can be further addressed as we go into next year. 

“We need a car that performs at a whole variance of circuits, which Mercedes has been very good at producing, and that’s where we need to be strong next year. We have got to be strong on all types of circuits across the 23-race calendar, but I think to take today’s performance at a circuit like this into the winter is very encouraging. 

“It is not a start from scratch again. Probably about 60% of the car is carried over to next year - gearbox, chassis, elements of suspension; a large element of the car is fixed. It's mainly aerodynamics that can be altered. Our philosophy has been whatever we learn this year, we carry over into next year."

Red Bull is also set to receive an additional boost for 2021 from engine supplier Honda, with the Japanese manufacturer developing a brand new power unit. Despite its decision to quit the championship at the end of 2021, Honda remains fully focused on trying to help Red Bull become champions before it leaves. 

“We are developing our new power unit for 2021, not only for performance but also reliability and then we know our position is still behind Mercedes, and then the other competitors don’t sleep during the off-season,” explained Honda technical director Toyoharu Tanabe.

“So we have a very short off-season this year, but everyone involved in Formula 1 makes maximum effort to win races, also the championship, so it’s not… easy to tell you we will win.

“On the other hand, we would be delighted to win more races and then try to be a challenger for the championship in 2021. So, we keep working very hard on our PU for next year.

“Our goal remains the same: to win the world championship. Along with our partner teams we will now be working very hard during what will be a very short off-season in the search for more performance, so that we can come back stronger.” 

Verstappen has remained cautious about Red Bull’s chances as he issued a rallying cry to his team to learn from its mistakes of recent seasons and hit the ground running this season. 

"I honestly don't want to feel anything at the moment," the Dutchman said after his win in Abu Dhabi. "We have to work hard to be better and stronger because you can't just rely on this result.

"We know we still have to improve the car a lot. We have some areas to work on, and not only on the car, but also power-wise. We need more.

"I hope we learn from the last few years,” he added. “It is not like we do it on purpose. We will go into the winter with a good feeling. It is a good boost and I just hope we learn from our mistakes we made also at the beginning of this year and hopefully we will build a better car for the beginning of next year.

"Maybe we just depend a bit more on track running. So we have to find a way of making sure that what comes out of the wind tunnel works straight away on the car, and it's immediate, and puts us in the right direction. So we'll work on that."

With Verstappen reaching new levels of excellence following another outstanding campaign and Red Bull pushing hard, there is optimism heading into the new campaign that we will see more great battles at the front of the grid, and hopefully, a closer championship fight.

 

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