The team picture
- Constructors standing: P2, 585.5 points
Once known as Formula 1's 'party team', this was the year that Red Bull got very serious indeed about delivering on their full potential. In past seasons the team has been handicapped by early engine power and reliability issues, and by the weakness of Max Verstappen's junior team mate. With a laser focus on really challenging Mercedes for both championships, they have been taking steps on all fronts: having replaced long-time engine partners Renault with Honda in 2019, a relationship which bedded in nicely last year, this time they took the unprecedented step of looking outside the Red Bull junior driver development programme by recruiting the experienced Sergio Perez to work alongside Verstappen.
Even so, the season started in a worryingly familiar fashion with Red Bull losing out to Mercedes in three of the first four races. But closer inspection revealed that they had all been knife-edge affairs, turning on razor thin margins that could easily have seen the result switch round in the blink of an eye. And then in Monaco, that switch did indeed get flipped: not only did Verstappen emerge victorious in the race, but a poor result for Hamilton meant that Red Bull took the lead in the points in both championships for the first time.
That was the first of five back-to-back wins for Red Bull and by the time we got to Austria Verstappen's lead over Hamilton was 32 points, with Red Bull 44 points ahead in the constructors battle. After that, Hamilton won his home race at Silverstone despite colliding with Verstappen on the first lap, which signalled the start of an overdue fightback by Mercedes. But it was tough going that finally came to a head in the season finale: while Verstappen clinched the driver's title on the last lap, a late retirement for Perez meant there was no chance for Red Bull to take the coveted team trophy as well.
The driver line-up
- Sergio Perez: P4, 190 points
- Max Verstappen: P1, 395.5 points
Given that Max Verstappen was paired with his strongest team mate since his days racing alongside Daniel Ricciardo, it's slightly ironic that he should come out looking so utterly dominant in the 2021 driver head-to-head statistics.
On the surface it doesn't look good for Perez: the Mexican came out on top in qualifying only once all season (for the Emilia Romagna GP) and his deficit to Verstappen was typically half a second per lap - and a horrific 2.3s in Belgium, but that was hardly a normal weekend from anyone's perspective. Similarly when it came to race results, Perez finished ahead of Verstappen only once in Azerbaijan which saw Perez claim his first (and to date only) win with his new team. In overall points, Verstappen's final tally was more than double that of Perez.
But this is one of those situations where the numbers don't tell the whole picture. Red Bull was a more potent force this year and part of that was down to it no longer being a one man band with everything resting on Verstappen's shoulders. When the team leader hit problems there was someone there to help pick up the pieces - never more effectively than in Abu Dhabi, where Perez' efforts holding up Hamilton to allow Verstappen to close back up after the first round of pit stops earned him praise and cheers from everyone in the Red Bull garage.
Now that Perez has settled into his new team and become used to a car always more designed and suited to Verstappen, he could be even more important to the outcome of next season's campaign and a more regular presence on the podium.
How 2022 is looking for Red Bull
The forecast for next season is complicated by the sport's overhaul of its rules and regulations. Unlike previous years when there has been stability and consistency, this could allow any one of the teams to steal a march on its rivals - or an unwelcome opportunity to stumble and embarrass itself.
It's just as well that Red Bull have gone all-in on the technical side. They've always had Adrian Newey on board to handle the car design and overall technical direction, but taking over the power unit side of things from Honda also means that they have greater involvement and growing knowledge in that area as well, which could finally put them on an equal footing with Mercedes as a manufacturer. If they can pull it off, Red Bull shouldn't be among those teams making any costly missteps in 2022.
And in terms of drivers, newly-crowned champion Max Verstappen will be an undoubted force to be reckoned with. Sergio Perez should be off to a quicker, smoother start to the new season as well. With Mercedes wounded and reeling in defeat, and having to deal with a new driver line-up as a result of George Russell's arrival at Brackley, the smart money would suggest that Red Bull are not only narrow favourites to retain the drivers title but may actually also have their nose in front to claim the constructors crown as well, for the first time since 2013.