Red Bull Racing has elected to change Max Verstappen's entire power unit structure, both the engine and the hybrid systems, ahead of this weekend's Russian Grand Prix. Because of the choice, Verstappen will now start at the back of the field on Sunday.
The decision is a tactical one. Red Bull would have needed to change the engine anyway after losing one of its allotted power units in a crash during the British Grand Prix, a decision that was always going to incur a full-grid penalty. When Verstappen was given a three-place penalty for causing a collision in the Italian Grand Prix, the widespread prediction in Formula 1 circles was that his team would choose to take that painful hit now, when the car is all but guaranteed to be pushed behind both Mercedes entries even if Verstappen sets the fastest time in qualifying. That decision is amplified by expected wet qualifying tomorrow, a recipe for chaos that leads to odd results on Saturday and a great opportunity to climb through the ranks more easily on Sunday.
It also puts Mercedes in an exceptional position. Lewis Hamilton shines everywhere, but Valtteri Bottas has traditionally been at his best at the relatively new Sochi circuit and has kept up that pace through two practice sessions. The track suits the car, the conditions suit the drivers, and Red Bull came into the weekend knowing that this might not be one of the weekends that swings its way. Add in an already-accepted identical penalty that puts Charles Leclerc on the back of the grid and it looks like a recipe for Mercedes to fight would-be surprise winners on Sunday, not the championship favorites.
Red Bull is not necessarily punting on the Russian Grand Prix, but if there is damage to be taken, they are looking to take their damage all at once. It is a smart mitigation strategy that will keep Verstappen in fresh power throughout the end of the season, just one that will make this weekend's race a little bit less competitive than usual.
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