Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton started the last race of the season in 2021 with exactly the same number of points. So you can safely say that Max Verstappen probably would not have become world champion with a slightly worse car. And that almost had been the case. Ironically, the reason behind this was that Max Verstappen was actually too good in 2020: his talent distorted the development of the car.
Red Bull’s technical boss Pierre Wache says to MotorSportMagazine.com on 2020: “We started not far from Mercedes that year, then we had a huge dip in the middle of the season before coming back up.” As the season progressed, the car got worse instead of better. This 2020 car has obviously been the basis for the 2021 car.
Lap times improved, but the car didn’t
The changes made the car quicker to steer and perform better in tight corners. The downside was that the car became more unstable. According to Wache, Verstappen is such a great talent that he could deal with this instability. They built on this principle and the lap times improved. The strategy initially seemed to work, but halfway through the season they hit a ceiling and were unable to develop the car further. They were stuck.
It was Verstappen who skilfully brushed away the mistakes of the car with his driving skills. The changes were therefore not as effective as expected. Wache says, “At first you don’t realize it’s just because he’s so talented. So you keep going in this direction, but you’re going too far and it’ll take you a few months to come back from that and realize you’ve gone the wrong way.” Red Bull had to switch to a different car strategy that had more potential for better lap times.
The 2020 car was the basis for 2021
Last year’s cars had hardly changed from the previous season. If Red Bull had not found out in time in 2020 that development was on the wrong track, Verstappen would have started in 2021 with a less good car. And if he had missed a few points due to a less good car, we would not have had our first Dutch world champion.