Formula 1 teams face a unique scenario with a new season start consisting of six races in seven weeks across Europe. Could it provide Red Bull and Max Verstappen with the upper hand? 

“It could be a real classic season,” were the words ushered by Red Bull team principal Christian Horner as he previewed the 2020 Formula 1 season before the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the schedule, forcing the opening 10 races to be called off.

For the past three months since the Australian Grand Prix was abandoned due to an outbreak of coronavirus in the Melbourne paddock in mid-March, F1 has been rigorously planning how it could get the heavily-delayed campaign underway in a safe manner. 

On Tuesday, F1 officially confirmed the first eight races for the 2020 season as it unveiled its European leg of the revised calendar. 

The news will have been met by smiles from Red Bull’s top brass, not only because its own venue - the Red Bull Ring - will play host to the opening two rounds, but also due to its recent success at the circuits that will comprise the early events on the new schedule. 

Over the past few years, slow starts have proved to be Red Bull’s Achilles’ Heel, putting it on the back foot in the fight against Mercedes and Ferrari while it takes time to fully unlock its car’s true potential. 

Red Bull tends to make significant gains as the year progresses, highlighted by its end-of-season performance in 2019 - where at times it had the fastest overall package. 

After the success of what Horner labelled as a ‘transitional’ 2019 season, in which Red Bull claimed three victories, two pole positions and third place in the constructors’ championship, the team is confident it can push on to table a sustained title charge in 2020. 

The impressive gains made by Honda on both the performance and reliability side will only add to the optimism, while the ever-improving Max Verstappen seems readier than ever to fight for titles. 

While the timesheets from winter testing must be taken with an air of caution, it is the only parameter available to provide a glimpse of the potential pecking order ahead of the forthcoming campaign. And throughout the six days of running in Barcelona, Red Bull appeared closer to Mercedes than Ferrari did. 

An Austria-Austria-Hungary triple header as the opening three races of the season acts as a mouth-watering prospect for Red Bull, given the team’s usual competitiveness at both venues. 

Verstappen has won the last two grands prix at the Red Bull Ring, having taken advantage of a rare double retirement for Mercedes in 2018, before recovering from a botched start to charge through the field en route to recording the first win for a Honda-powered car in F1 since 2006 at last year’s race. 

The Dutchman also came close to victory in Hungary last year. After claiming his first ever F1 pole position during a thrilling qualifying session, Verstappen looked set to convert his pole into the win but was defeated four laps from the end after a strategy gamble by Mercedes enabled Lewis Hamilton to steal a late victory.  

Not only does Red Bull’s package work particularly well around the tight and twisty Red Bull Ring and Hungaroring, high temperatures usually seen in Austria and Hungary during the summer months have caused Mercedes performance-related issues in the past, though it appeared to get on top of its cooling headaches last season. 

Thanks to Honda’s continued progress, qualifying gains were made for Red Bull in 2019, too. They were reflected in Verstappen’s phenomenal pole laps in Budapest and Brazil, while he also set the fastest time in Mexico qualifying before being penalised. 

The Red Bull-Honda relationship is showing signs of flourishing and with further positive noises coming out of Japan over the winter, Red Bull has reasons to be confident. 

A mini-calendar might seem anti-Mercedes on the face of it, given that its best chance of a first victory might not come until the fourth round at Silverstone, where it has won seven of the past eight British Grands Prix.  

Two races at Silverstone would provide Mercedes a chance to hit back if it did find itself on the back foot, while Spain’s Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya has also been a happy hunting ground for the Silver Arrows in the V6 hybrid era - 2016 aside.

On paper at least, the last two events on the European leg of the calendar in Belgium and Italy - and the high-speed nature of the Spa-Francorchamps and Monza tracks - would probably play more into the hands of Mercedes and Ferrari, but Red Bull and Honda may well have reduced its previous straight-line performance deficit. 

While Ferrari might have squandered early championship advantages to Mercedes in recent seasons, Red Bull’s streak of four successive world championships between 2010 and 2013 suggests that when in title contention, its sleek operation does not usually crack under pressure. With a formidable Verstappen spearheading its attack, it is hard to see where fault lines could emerge. 

Of course, the remainder of the calendar is yet to be established, and those circuits may play back into Mercedes’ hands. It is also worth noting that Hamilton has a tendency to turn it up a notch in the second half of campaigns with an unparalleled streak of supreme form, but Verstappen and Red Bull could certainly turn up the heat on the Mercedes-Hamilton juggernaut by winning the opening three races, a feat not achieved by a non-Mercedes car in the past six years. 

The exact competitiveness of each team remains to be seen and there are a number of variables to play out, but the prospect of a three-team battle for supremacy in the title race is an enticing one to get excited about, especially when considering the unprecedented nature of the 2020 season. 

If it can finally make a fast start to the season, Red Bull might just have its best chance of genuinely challenging for silverware for the first time since the end of 2013.



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