Given the car’s pace over the past two races, it’s not out of the question that Hamilton and Bottas will produce a 1-2 finish in Saudi Arabia — the first of the year — to put Verstappen on the back foot and trailing by at least a point. On current form, it’s more likely than Sergio Perez assisting his team-mate’s title bid by taking points from Hamilton.
Another strong performance by Mercedes in Abu Dhabi would see Verstappen looking vulnerable and in need of some of his midseason magic: between the Belgian Grand Prix at the end of August and the Mexican race in early November, he extended his lead by an average of three points per lead to build a cushion of 19 points. That has more than halved in the past two races.
We don’t know whether reliability will play an issue. Hamilton’s Mercedes was fitted with its fifth engine this year in Brazil. Will it be enough to see him to the end of the season?
Red Bull isn’t immune either. The car has appeared bulletproof this year, but it would just take a faulty tyre; a sticking wheel nut; a visor caught in an air intake; a mis-tightened connector; or a cracking rear wing to put him out of the race and allow Hamilton to take the lead (how do race engineers sleep at night?).
Finally, the spectre of Covid still looms, with testing still taking place throughout the paddock. All it would take would be an unfortunate contact in a departure lounge, or in a hotel room and he could easily be ruled out of a race. Then Verstappen would be helplessly reliant on Perez, and potentially a replacement, to deprive Hamilton of maximum points.
How Lewis Hamilton can win the 2021 F1 World Championship
Hamilton’s two wins in Brazil and Qatar have reignited his championship hopes. Can he channel the spirit of 2014 when he was 29 points behind Nico Rosberg and responded with a string of five successive victories? A third win in Saudi Arabia, where the Mercedes is expected to run well, could see him arrive in Abu Dhabi with the championship lead.
There are plenty of permutations that would bring an eighth championship Hamilton’s way but nothing less than more race wins are likely to satisfy him — and with reason.
Verstappen has been adept at maximising his points haul when he has been off the top step of the podium. Apart from at Silverstone, where he was nerfed off the track, the Dutchman has finished second every time that Hamilton has won.
So Hamilton can’t rely on the Red Bull driver slipping up: he has to target maximum points every time, with fastest lap bonuses potentially being critical.
The graph below shows what will happen if Hamilton wins the remaining races and Verstappen finishes second. The Mercedes driver would win but the title would go down to the wire. Not included in the graphic are the the points available for fastest laps.
Also crucial will be the motivation of Valtteri Bottas whose pole position in Mexico and the Brazilian sprint race win showed that he’s not slowly winding down before his move to Alfa Romeo.
A 1-2 Mercedes finish could close the gap in the championship table by up to 11 points per race, gouging Verstappen’s advantage and putting Hamilton ahead as they went to Abu Dhabi.
Bottas isn’t renowned for his role as rear-gunner, but he’ll surely be encouraged to defend aggressively against Verstappen: if it ends off the track, then it would benefit Hamilton’s title hopes, without too much impact on the constructors’ fight.
As long as Hamilton can finish, that is. He took his fifth engine, and resulting penalty, in Brazil and will be hoping to finish the season without another. That will be critical for his title hopes, as will his car’s reliability. Any retirement where Verstappen goes on to score points, or a Covid diagnosis that sees Hamilton miss a race, and the chances of retaining the title suddenly become slim.