Red Bull claimed back-to-back pole positions for the first time in the same season since 2013 as Max Verstappen beat the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton to land his third pole of the year on home soil at the Styrian Grand Prix. 

Hamilton had no answer to Verstappen’s pace throughout qualifying despite unusually completing three runs on the soft tyres in Q3 in an unsuccessful bid to usurp Red Bull. The Briton ended up 0.266s adrift around one of the shortest tracks on the calendar. 

Mercedes heads into today’s race looking to avoid a fourth straight defeat to Red Bull, with Hamilton 12 points behind Verstappen in their drivers’ championship battle, while Mercedes trails Red Bull by 37 points in the constructors’ standings. 

Despite suffering a string of difficult weekends in Monaco, Baku and Paul Ricard, Mercedes has no intention of changing its development plans and pulling resource off its 2022 F1 car. 

Fighting on two fronts 

Teams face a development headache with F1 switching to an all-new car concept from next year, meaning resource has to be juggled between both this season and 2022.

Most are prioritising the 2022 F1 rules revolution in their quest to earn a potentially critical head start, but the tight nature of this year’s title fight has created an additional dilemma for Mercedes and Red Bull. 

Although teams have largely carried over their 2020 cars into this season, new rules relating to the floor area that were introduced to reduce downforce appear to have hit teams running low-rake cars - including Mercedes - the hardest.

The changes have seemingly put Mercedes on the back foot early on in the campaign following a tough pre-season test and aided Red Bull’s high-rake concept, helping the Milton Keynes squad make its best start to an F1 season since 2013. 

While Mercedes remains determined to continue its unbeaten record in the V6 hybrid era, it equally does not want to risk falling behind heading into F1’s new regulation overhaul, amid fears it could take teams years to catch up if they fail to get the rules right. 

“We know how the technical directives have evolved for 2021," Wolff said after qualifying. "We have been on the receiving end. Fact. 

"We continue to stick to our principle of putting our resource into 2022, with all the consequences that can happen in 2021. But this is a long game. We are not looking at a single race or a single result, but trying to optimise every single year.”

Tyres and set-up giving Mercedes a headache 

Instead of deviating from the way it has split resources between this year and next, Mercedes is focusing on getting the best out of its package that has so far proved inconsistent and troublesome. 

One of the W12’s biggest weaknesses this year has been getting the tyres into the optimum operating window, something its chief rival Red Bull is seemingly able to achieve much easier with its RB16B. 

The tyres have been a huge performance differentiator this season with fine margins such as surface temperature and track conditions having a major effect on how they have worked. 

Tyres and set-up are two areas that Mercedes is putting a huge amount of effort into improving in its bid to unlock more potential it remains convinced is hidden within its 2021 F1 challenger.

 
“We just need to do the best of our package,” Wolff explained. “It’s not a secret. There is a trend. 

“They [Red Bull] have the faster package at the moment and we need to utilise our tools and our intelligence and our car set-up work, the tyres. We need to be faultless and I believe if we can align those stars, we can win the championship. 

"And whatever the pole position or victories that anybody has at this stage, we have just been through one-third of the championship. There is a long way to go. 

"It is completely open, but from a pure performance standpoint their package is simply quicker at the moment."

Mercedes on a journey of ‘discovery’ with its car

Struggles to get on top of the tyres and car set-up have resulted in Hamilton and Bottas’ form dramatically yo-yoing in recent weeks. Hamilton was off the pace compared to Bottas in Monaco, while it was roles reversed in Baku. 

At Spielberg, Hamilton was happier with his car’s set-up on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. However, the seven-time world champion was left puzzled as to why his W12 did not feel as good when it mattered most in qualifying. 

"It was a difficult session for me," said Hamilton, who was slower than Bottas in qualifying but will start alongside Verstappen on the front row due to the Finn’s grid drop.

"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 the car was feeling great all day on Friday.

"We have just been chipping away at it and each change is just trying to eke out like ten milliseconds or something. And then I got into qualifying and the car just didn't feel as great as in final practice. I don't fully understand it.

"I wasn't that quick in qualifying but I am really happy to be where we are. The next 0.2secs is a little bit difficult. They [Red Bull] have had [strong] 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, and not leaving any stone unturned.” 

In contrast to Hamilton, Bottas struggled more on Friday, before a switch towards a set-up closer to that of his teammate helped Bottas turn things around in qualifying. 

"I think we’re discovering quite a lot about the car now,” he explained. 

“We can go into so many different ways with the set-up and it’s actually quite easy to get confused with which direction to go. We keep learning and we keep optimising. 

“We need to keep on learning because this is a real tough battle ahead this season.”

What is Red Bull’s approach? 

Red Bull is taking a different approach to Mercedes, aware that this season presents its best chance to win a world title since 2013. 

The four-time world champion outfit is continuing to bring developments in its bid to open up its advantage over Mercedes in both world championships. 

Verstappen has been urging Red Bull to capitalise on finally being in a position to mount a full-on title assault this year. 

"I don’t know how Mercedes is dividing their operation but for us, we have enough good people that can focus on 2022 and have enough people focusing on 2021,” he told Crash.net in a recent interview

“So I do think that we should give it a good go for this year’s championship and I think we will also still have a very competitive car next year.”

Meanwhile, his teammate Sergio Perez praised the work going on back at Red Bull’s factory in Milton Keynes. 

“The team is pushing hard,” the Mexican said. 

“Everyone back in the factory is trying to develop the car as best as possible, bringing upgrades pretty much every single weekend. You can see the results on-track.”