Red Bull vs McLaren vs Mercedes: What next in F1’s development war?

McLaren and Mercedes both outscored Red Bull in Canada, with all three teams expected to bring upgrades to the Spanish GP

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The Canadian Grand Prix served up the best race of the 2024 Formula 1 season so far with a dramatic five-driver, three-team battle at the front, which saw Max Verstappen take victory for Red Bull ahead of the McLaren of Lando Norris and MercedesGeorge Russell.

Ferrari were the favourites upon arrival in Montreal but the optimism of Charles Leclerc‘s Monaco weekend was torpedoed by an inability to get the SF-23 working in either wet or dry conditions, culminating in the team’s worst-ever weekend under Fred Vasseur‘s stewardship.

They will hope to recover for the Spanish GP in a fortnight, though Mercedes‘ ascendency meant neutrals were far from starved of action in Ferrari‘s absence with Russell picking up the Silver Arrows’ first podium of 2024.

Toto Wolff admitted he dreamt he had a race-winning car for a few minutes in Canada as Russell held the lead from Max Verstappen on the first lap, but the question now is whether it’s yet another false dawn in this era of regulations or the start of a genuine return to race-winning ways with more upgrades to come:

“Another step in Barcelona and hopefully we will see it on stopwatch,” Wolff told select members of the press, including Total-Motorsport.com.

“I can’t tell you, sometimes when things work and interact well with each other, the overall flow structure becomes more efficient, you’re able to optimise the ride height and bit by bit we have found we’ve added more performance.”

Can Red Bull and McLaren hold off Mercedes?

Race winner Max Verstappen Second placed Lando Norris of McLaren and Third placed George Russell of Mercedes celebrate on the podium after the 2024 Canadian Grand Prix | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool
Race winner Max Verstappen Second placed Lando Norris of McLaren and Third placed George Russell of Mercedes celebrate on the podium after the 2024 Canadian Grand Prix | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

After starting the season on par with Mercedes, things started to click for McLaren at the Australian GP and they’ve beaten their engine supplier in every race since on a run that features a win and five podiums. In contrast, the Silver Arrows haven’t been on par with Red Bull since 2021 but the pacesetters are showing signs that their invincible aura is crumbling.

With Adrian Newey no longer involved, a hefty repair bill stretching their budget cap thanks to Sergio Perez‘s back-to-back DNFs and the lowest aerodynamic testing allowance on the grid, team boss Christian Horner conceded they can’t produce another magic bullet.

“It’s all about iterations and you have to look very carefully where you bring your upgrades in through the year,” Horner said. “We’re closer to the top of the curve so you get into the law of diminishing returns but there will be subtle upgrades over the summer months.”

When pressed on whether that’s a confirmation Red Bull will bring upgrades to Barcelona, Horner replied: “It’s possible.”

And McLaren team principal Andrea Stella echoed Horner‘s message, adding: “I won’t say what, but we will see some new stuff coming over the coming races. We will have some upgrades, but there won’t be a single kind of big upgrade like we have seen over the last 12 months.

“This is more some individual components where we found a little bit of performance and rather than waiting to deploy everything together once ready, we take it right.”

Stella‘s words mark a definite shift from earlier in the lifespan of the current regulations, when teams could literally leap from the back of the field to the front in the gap between races.

The 2023 Canadian GP was a second consecutive pointless race for McLaren but Norris finished fourth a fortnight later after he received their groundbreaking upgrades, then scored back-to-back podiums.

Mercedes enjoyed a 2023 revolution of their own after they finally ditched their ‘no sidepods’ concept in Monaco and immediately netted their highest-scoring race of the year at that stage, following it up with three podiums in the next two grand prix.

However, despite their upturn in form coinciding with a radical new front wing reaching the W15, Wolff insisted F1 is all about small steps in 2024.

“Sometimes when you bring a highly visible part like bodywork or front wing, that is pretty much the talk of what has changed the performance,” Wolff said. “The truth is over the last three races we’ve brought so many new parts – visible and invisible for the eye – that have contributed milliseconds to more performance.

“This is where those marginal gains then have that positive effect and that was just a huge effort of the factory and so I think the wheel has started to get some real motion now.”

Adam Dickinson
An international multi-award-winning journalist, Adam Dickinson has written for Total-Motorsport.com since June 2022 and also contributes to TNT Sports, Eurosport and the Rugby Paper. He's also had articles published in the Daily Telegraph and several local newspapers, previously worked for Last-Lap.co.uk and FeederSeries.net in motorsport, and graduated with a First-Class Journalism Degree from the University of Sheffield having also studied in Oklahoma. Adam started watching F1 by accident in 2007, catching the last race in Indianapolis, and attended his first race as a journalist at the 2023 British Grand Prix.
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