'Seriously, is anyone really declaring the F1 championship a done deal?'


Verstappen appears to have been making the drivers' title his own in recent races, but as Chris Medland points out, the margins are small and much could still change – history tells us so

start of the race, depart, 33 VERSTAPPEN Max (nld), Red Bull Racing Honda RB16B, 44 HAMILTON Lewis (gbr), Mercedes AMG F1 GP W12 E Performance, action during the Formula 1 Aramco United States Grand Prix 2021, 17th round of the 2021 FIA Formula One World Championship from October 21 to 24, 2021 on the Circuit of the Americas, in Austin, Texas, United States of American - Photo Antonin Vincent / DPPI

It may appear as though Verstappen is slowly strengthening his grip on the title, but there could be more performance swings in store yet

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

Cast your mind back to the British Grand Prix. It was that event that felt so strange because it had a capacity crowd – the largest in the UK by far coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic – and it was the first Sprint weekend in Formula 1’s history.

The bit I want to remind you of, though, is the fact that Max Verstappen held a 33-point lead over Lewis Hamilton after the sprint qualifying and was starting from pole position. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you what happened next. What I will say about that collision is that it – whoever you deem to be at fault – was clearly not a case of one driver intentionally instigating contact. It was two drivers who were unwilling to yield at the same time and accept that the other had the high ground. That came at the 10th round of a 22-race season. The pressure is only increasing, and the likelihood of a similar incident becomes greater as we near the end of the season as each driver can more clearly understand the significance of each moment on track.

One week after Silverstone and a treacherous start to the Hungarian Grand Prix saw Valtteri Bottas run into the back of Lando Norris, in turn heavily damaging Verstappen’s car and limiting him to ninth place. Even with the bizarre sight of Hamilton sitting on the grid alone on pole position (at what was expected to be a track that suited Red Bull, don’t forget), he managed to recover to be classified second and complete a 41-point turnaround to lead by eight.

First corner crash at the start of the 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix

Silverstone and Hungary collisions brought in a huge change in points standings

‘But Red Bull was so dominant in Mexico!’ I hear you shout at your screen. And that’s true, it was Hamilton finished a little over 16sec adrift.

However, the Mercedes driver was a similar position before Silverstone. After a clean run in the first of two races at the Red Bull Ring, Hamilton was running 17sec behind Verstappen until a late pitstop to gain the extra point for fastest lap.

Red Bull has had the quicker car at a number of points during this season but every time we think it’s safe to say it is going to walk away with the championship, Mercedes turns the battle on its head.

Related article

Then we get a weekend such as Turkey, where Mercedes looked to have taken a big step forward with its car set-up and heads to Circuit of the Americas expecting Hamilton to take maximum points. That gets proven wrong, too.

Seriously, is anyone really declaring this championship a done deal?

The pressure of a title fight can make people do strange things, and I’m not just talking about the driver. Look at Ferrari getting its strategy all wrong in Abu Dhabi in 2010, covering off Mark Webber with Fernando Alonso only to find that doing so opened the door to Sebastian Vettel.

On that occasion, Vettel was clearly quick but going for his first title and faced a fight from a number of different directions. In 2012, he had the quicker car compared to Fernando Alonso. People remember F1’s inaugural visit to Austin for Hamilton beating Vettel to victory, but what is often overlooked is that Alonso finished 40sec back in third.

And yet a week later, Alonso so nearly took the title in a dramatic finale.


In 2010, Alonso finished 40sec off Vettel in Austin, but then nearly won the title – the contenders’ deficits this year have been much smaller

The trend has been for the Red Bull to again be the stronger car on more occasions this year, but at nowhere near the level that was sometimes seen in those championship fights. These are two teams that are extremely closely matched, to the extent we’re shocked when one car can pull away from the other to the tune of a quarter of a second per lap, as we saw in Mexico.

But that’s a gap that both teams expect to see close in Brazil.

“It’s difficult because normally this far into the season you see the performance settle down a bit and the swings are still big,” Mercedes’ trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin says. “There will be circuits that will suit us, we had very strong races in Turkey and Sochi and plenty of strong races since the summer break. So it will be up and down. We’ve definitely got our work cut out, on balance they are a little bit ahead of us but it’ll get affected by the weather, the track temperatures, those will play a part.

“But the bigger thing will be the circuit characteristics. It seems when we’re on an understeery track we tend to go a little bit better, and then at the last two races, very much about rear tyre overheating, it’s quite clear they have the advantage when we’re in that situation.

“Yeah there’s reasons we would expect it to be closer [in Brazil]. The thing is what we like to spend our time doing is worrying about things that might go wrong and might catch us out. So as I said it may well be, but it’s so unpredictable at the moment.

“You look at qualifying, and single-lap [pace] can be more variable than the race pace, but we don’t need to go back far and we clearly had the most dominant car through the weekend in Turkey and I think so in Sochi as well, and within the remaining four circuits there will be circuits that suits us, so we’re going to keep trying and do everything we can to try and win the championships.”

Verstappen Hamilton

Hamilton struggles to keep up with Verstappen in Mexico, but it could all change in Brazil

Grand Prix Photo

As Shovlin points out, it was only two races ago that the paddock was arriving in the US with Mercedes suddenly looking strong, before Verstappen intervened with an excellent performance in a race of tiny margins. Then Mexico hit, and the panic button is being pushed in some quarters by those that think the momentum is with Red Bull and can’t be stopped, despite this season telling us time and again it’s too close to call with certainty ahead of any weekend.

“I don’t believe in momentum,” Verstappen says. “So, every single race we have to try and nail the details and we didn’t do that [in qualifying], so you know, things can go wrong very quickly, or can go right. So, it’s going to be really tight and exciting to the end. This has been always a track really good for us, so I expect Brazil not to be like it was [in Mexico].”

Would you rather be in Red Bull’s position heading to Brazil than Mercedes’? Absolutely. But is this title race over? Not by a long shot.