Lewis Hamilton isn't the only one excited about F1 battle ahead — MPH

F1

It's easy to believe that Lewis Hamilton is fired up about the prospect of a duel with Max Verstappen ahead of the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix, writes Mark Hughes

Lewis Hamilton ahead of the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix

Hamilton, in Bahrain yesterday, appears to relish the chance of a flat-out battle with Verstappen

Frederic Le Floc'h/DPPI

Ahead of the start of the season Lewis Hamilton seemed less than confident that Mercedes has been able to fully rectify the handling imbalance its new W12 displayed during Bahrain testing two weeks ago when Max Verstappen’s Red Bull-Honda looked the class of the field.

But the prospect of that being the case has, he says, got him very excited about the battle ahead.

“The first race each year is always a little bit of an unknown,” he said, “but of course more often we have a better feeling of what’s happening with our car. It’s massively exciting for us as a team. We are currently not the fastest and how are we going to work together, how are we going to unite in order to get to where we want to be?

“I’m so excited for that challenge and seeing so many other teams close. It’s going to be great for fans and I love that collaboration with the men and women in my team and trying to get to our common goal.

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“We are in the best shape we can possibly be in considering that we only had three days of testing. There’s been a huge amount of analysis: the engineers, the guys back at the factory, there’s a huge amount of data from everyone to try and understand, churn the numbers and make improvements in that short period. But I think we come here positive.

“We’ve tried to understand in terms of quantifying how big or small an issue we may or may not have. I think we’re in the early phases, but I know that everyone on the ground here, all the engineers and also the aerodynamicists in particular back at the factory have been working around the clock to rectify any abnormal things that happened with the new car because of the new regulation shifts.”

The suggestion is that the low-rake Mercedes has been more adversely affected by the cut in the floor area than the shorter high-rake Red Bull. Certainly during testing it was visible how much more balanced and grippy Verstappen’s car was than the Merc. It was as if the traits of the two cars had been inverted from last year when the Red Bull was a quick but visibly more demanding drive than the Mercedes.

Add to that the major progress Honda has made with what is virtually an all-new power unit and hopes that the season will be less one-sided than last year do seem to have some basis of reason.

Max Verstappen talks to Lewis Hamilton

Head to head on track in 2021? We don’t have long to find out

Dan Istitene/F1 via Getty Images

A full-on duel between Hamilton and Verstappen is of course what F1 has been yearning for way too long. It seems it may be something Hamilton as just as excited about. An easy cruise to an eighth title might even be something that would nudge him towards retirement more than would a flat-out battle with the pretender to his throne.

“In the current position, I don’t feel like this is the end,” he said. “Of course, we’ve got these changes that are happening next year, which are exciting. I think this looks like it could be the most exciting season yet. I don’t feel like I’m at the end, but the next eight months or so, I’ll find out whether I’m ready to stop or not. I don’t think I will personally, but you never know.”

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In answer to an earlier question about retirement, he used the phrase “I don’t quit when the going gets tough,” rather implying that he expects that’s how the going will be this year.

The cynics confident that Merc would show up this weekend with a totally different car, believing the test car was just a mule with which to get mileage (as Mercedes did in 2017 and ’19) have been proven wrong. The car is visibly much as it was in testing.

With such a build-up, it would be so disappointing if Mercedes demonstrated its usual advantage this weekend. But sitting here on the Friday before it all kicks off it really doesn’t feel like that’s how it’s going to play out. Let’s see.