Will Hamilton versus Verstappen go down to the wire – and what could stop it?

2021 F1 season

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The ever-changing championship arithmetic heightened the drama of last week’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton arrived in Baku four points behind Max Verstappen. But having underwhelmed in practice, a fine qualifying effort and early pass on Charles Leclerc put the Mercedes driver on course to retake the lead.

Then a slow pit stop for the Mercedes driver handed the initiative to Red Bull. Verstappen took the lead, and with Sergio Perez backing him up in second place, was on course to extend his points advantage.

Next came the gut-wrenching tyre failure which put Verstappen out of the race, denying him a potential 26 point gain. Making matters worse for Red Bull, Hamilton was now on course for second place – 18 points – or even more.

What a relief it must have been for Red Bull, then, when Hamilton slithered wide at the restart, condemning him to finish outside the top 10, and ensuring the point situation remained unchanged.

That one race provided more championship twists and turns than we’ve seen over an entire campaign in recent years. Will we finally see our first season-ending showdown for five years at Yas Marina in December – or are we destined for an anti-climactic end to the championship?

The swinging pendulum

Red Bull started the season with a quick car, yet Mercedes contrived to grab victory in the season-opener in Bahrain. Hamilton enjoyed a slice of luck at Imola where he bagged second place despite an error, and wins in the next two races kept him ahead.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Imola, 2021
Red flag let Hamilton off the hook for Imola error
Mercedes weren’t as competitive in the last two races on tracks which didn’t suit their W12. But Verstappen’s misfortune last time out means Red Bull didn’t reap the rewards as fully as they might have hoped.

Now the championship moves on to more typical European road circuits. Based on Mercedes’ performance at similar tracks, especially the Circuit de Catalunya, Hamilton should have a good chance to regain the points lead in the coming weeks.

Are we about to see the world champions flex their muscles and draw clear of their rivals? This has happened before, notably when Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari took the fight to them in 2017 and, most recently, 2018 (below).

But this year things are different for two key reasons. All teams are constrained by a budget cap, and Mercedes are feeling it especially keenly. Valtteri Bottas’ crash at Imola inflated their repair bill and last month the team called off a 2022 tyre test to avoid further expenditure.

They also have next year’s radically new technical regulations to work on. Mercedes CEO Toto Wolff is adamant they won’t sacrifice potential gains for next year in order to shore up their 2021 title bid. “We already readjusted the plan to 2022, and there is no way of backing out of it,” he said. “We will not change any decisions that we have taken, strategic decisions, just because we had two really bad race weekends.”

Points mean (earlier) prizes

Extra points will be available at Silverstone this year
It is less likely this year’s championship will be decided at the final race due to changes in the calendar and points system.

Three years ago there was a maximum of 500 points available before the final round. That has increased to 581 this year.

This inflation in the points system reduces the likelihood we’ll see a final-round title-decider. The number of points needed to clinch the title before the final race has increased by 3.8% (from 26 to 27), while the number of points available has risen by 16.2%.

This is due partly to changes in the points system. A bonus point for fastest lap was introduced in 2019 and from this year ‘Sprint Qualifying’ events will award up to three extra points at three races.

It has also come about due an increase in the number of races. However the calendar presents another vital variable for this year’s championship.

The worst-case scenario

As the world continues to emerge from the pandemic, the cancellation of the Singapore Grand Prix earlier this month was a reminder the final rounds of the championship aren’t set in stone. F1 still intends to replace that lost race with another to ensure the planned 23 rounds go ahead.

Strat, Shanghai, 2016, World Touring Car Championship
Cancelled race decided 2016 WTCC title
Despite the record number of races on this year’s calendar, F1 is content to visit the same venue twice in order to ensure the show goes on as intended. It will hold the first of two back-to-back races at the Red Bull Ring later this month, and the Circuit of the Americas is under consideration for a double-header to make up for the lost Singapore race.

While there is undoubtedly a financial consideration involved, there is also a valid sporting reason for ensuring the season isn’t shortened by a late cancellation. In the latter stages of the season, when points-scoring opportunities are reduced, the sudden loss of a race could even decide the championship.

This has happened in other series before, notably in the World Touring Car Championship five years ago. Jose Maria Lopez had a healthy championship lead with six races remaining, and when the series cancelled its two races in Thailand without arranging a replacement, Lopez automatically became champion.

Doubts persist over some of F1’s later calendar dates this year including Brazil and Australia’s rounds of the world championship in November. These lie between Mexico’s round and Saudi Arabia’s first grand prix in Jeddah. With two races at the beginning of December already, delaying the end of the season is unlikely to be an option.

F1’s contingency planning for cancellations since the pandemic began has been encouragingly diligent. The possibility that the championship could be decided by a race being called off therefore appears remote.

The title rivals have already gone wheel-to-wheel several times
As has long been the case in F1, the championship outcome is more likely to be swung by whichever team makes the greatest strides in development over the season. In recent years that has been Mercedes. But perhaps Red Bull, desperate to end their eight-year title drought and facing the inevitable uncertainty which comes with Honda’s departure at the end of the season, will prove willing to put a vital extra push into their 2021 campaign.

“Max could have come out of the weekend putting 10 points onto his championship lead, or 11 with the lap if it’d had finished where it was with five to go,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner reflected after the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

“So he could have been 15 up. He’s still four up but at one point he was looking like he could be 21 down if Lewis had nicked the victory. So it’s swings and roundabouts. I think it’s going to do this, while the cars performance is so close, throughout this championship, which makes it so exciting to be part of.”

Hopefully he’s proved right.

Quotes: Dieter Rencken

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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25 comments on “Will Hamilton versus Verstappen go down to the wire – and what could stop it?”

  1. The major difference between the Vettel year and this year, is that Mercedes seemed alot more confident against Vettel.
    They didn’t start throwing employees under the bus, when something went wrong.

    If Mercedes isn’t able to get back to its rational, it could be the season that they crack.

    Reply moderated
  2. In the past battling Ferrari, the impression was Ferrari where operating at 110% to be competitive, with everything needing to go there way and Mercedes needing to slip up – Mercedes just needed to put in a clean weekend (and operate at 90%) to secure the win. They where never really put under sustained pressure, over the coarse of a season we all new Mercedes would prevail. Redbull have started this season well, applying pressure – seemingly pushing Mercedes a little further out there comfort zone than in the past. Redbull have a great track record for developing the car – so Mercedes will be a little more spooked than normal…. Hopefully we get a battle that will reward the best driver the championship.

    Hamilton has always said this is what he wanted so he could prove his metal under pressure – so far we seen two big mistakes and under performing the car at Monaco. He undoubtedly one of the greats, so hopefully for him he gets a chance to set the record straight. Lets see if he can up his game handle the pressure, knowing he needs to be the one pushing it 110%….

    Unfortunately I suspect Mercedes still hold a decent enough advantage on the more traditional tracks, allowing Hamilton to operate in (for what is to him) a comfort zone (95%) – we shall see….

    Reply moderated
  3. Truly going to be one race at a time. As we have seen even when a track ‘should’ favour one team’s car, that doesn’t guarantee anything. And what tracks will they even be racing at? Huge kudos to Max and RBR and Honda that this isn’t just another LH/Mercedes romp out front (yet, lol) and that we are even talking about what might be to come.

    1. @robbie Red Bull is the best car according to Helmut Marko and GPS data, yet Max is only ahead by four points despite having the best car and don’t forget that the 2021 rule change are in Red Bull’s (high rake) favor, with other words, they are underperforming actually.

      1. It is more that mistakes at RB side seem to be very costly while Mercedes got away with quite a lot up until the fumble in Baku. Ifs and buts of course, but consider Verstappen winning Bahrain and Baku while Lewis didn’t luck into the Imola red flag. The points gap could have been:
        4 point WDC difference.
        Bahrain 14 point swing for Verstappen (track limits x29 or 1 overtake)
        Imola 14 points less for Hamilton (I doubt he could have finished higher than ~8th under normal circumstances)
        Baku 11 points less for Hamilton (3rd instead of last, but Verstappen with win + FL).
        That could have been a massive 43 point gap. I fear this will be decisive in the end.

      2. @noname Lol well there you have it…the scientific answer to it all.

      3. @noname

        Red Bull is the best car

        Nope

        according to Helmut Marko

        Not a very reliable source of information given that he predicted that Red Bull would be ahead of Mercedes for 2019. Marko always hypes up RBR, which is his job.

        GPS data

        Please share that data

        yet Max is only ahead by four points

        Because of the Baku puncture (something out of his own hands as well as Red Bull’s).

        don’t forget that the 2021 rule change are in Red Bull’s (high rake) favor

        Merely corrected the offset caused by the 2019 regulation changes that screwed over high rake cars.

        with other words, they are underperforming actually.

        You’ve managed to get every single fact wrong on your way or this conclusion.

  4. In reality, it’s always unlikely that a World Championship will go the distance and we’ve been spoiled in the past with the number that have actually made it to the final race. Obviously the ever increasing number of races means it’s more likely that a championship will be wrapped up well in advance of the final race.

    This season is fascinating and I’m trying to simply enjoy the ride. I don’t understand those who say “this could be the championship over” on race 6 out of potentially 22 (? I’ve lost track!). Verstappen and Hamilton could inspire each other to multiple mistakes opening the door for Bottas/Perez/Leclerc/Norris (obviously very unlikely)… one of them could DNF a few times allowing the other to run away with it… or perhaps it continues to be as “blow for blow” as we’ve seen so far. As @robbie says, it’s best to enjoy it race by race and if we have a finale, then fantastic!

    1. @ben-n

      The worry is that it won’t be blow-for-blow, but that Lewis will slowly but inevitably pull away, as the latter races are to their advantage.

      You can compare it to a cycling race where one rider is a great climber and the other a great time trialer, with only a time trial still to go. In that case, it is less exciting if the standings are very close, because then it is pretty much a given that the time trialer will win. The time trialer probably won’t even have to take risks to win and the climber has no realistic chance, no matter how well he performs relative to his ability.

      Yet if the climber has a healthy, but surmountable lead, then it is very exciting. Both riders can take it and an over- or underperformance can make them win or lose.

      Of course, the question is whether Mercedes will actually have a substantial advantage in the upcoming races.

      1. Yes, agree with this.

  5. The Driver’s Championship is the headline act and I really hope it stays close.

    But if not – the rest of the field is so close that other championship places could be very closely fought!

  6. Mercedes’ tyre wear advantage will surely be difficult to overcome, especially if Perez is still not able to bag 4th in qualifying and the strategy handicap continues.

    But even if it should be close and go down to the wire, reliability and strategy is also advantage Mercedes. Even luck seems to favor them, look at Imola.

    Still nice to entertain the idea for a while at least.

  7. F1MadFan1970 (@)
    14th June 2021, 22:02

    Let’s hope not but 2022 coming will have an effect.

  8. What could stop it??? Pirelli could

    Reply moderated
  9. My guess is that Hamilton will regain the lead into mid-season but narrowly with Red Bull coming back stronger towards the end of the season with Mercedes unable to develop as much as they’d like. Hamilton has made two big mistakes and had an almost inexplicably bad weekend at Monaco, whereas Verstappen has looked good every race, maintaining a consistency he has shown the past couple of seasons. So add all those factors together and there’s a good chance the season will got to the wire. Just now it actually feels like this could be Verstappen’s first championship year.

    1. What worries me is that hamilton has been pretty bad on average, if we gave him a 1-10 mark on all 6 races it wouldn’t be great, no better than 8, so I don’t think he will be this bad for the rest of the year, and mercedes so far proved they have the advantage on regular tracks, and the last street track has even been cancelled, so red bull needs to get a better race pace for the other tracks as soon as possible or it won’t even be a championship race.

      1. @esploratore1 I think that aside from Monaco Hamilton has been strong, i.e. quick, his best ever season start. But the mistakes were there even in good race weekends for him (Imola and Baku). So actually there’s a question if he can maintain his form over the entire year and avoid any more potentially race-losing mistakes. Meanwhile Verstappen seems very cool headed. Plus Perez looks better adapted now, while Bottas poses a conundrum for Mercedes – sign Russell instead and they could lose Bottas’s contribution altogether. And add Hamilton’s own contract situation into the mix, Mercedes look to me to have a more troubled path ahead.

    2. Red bull coming back stronger at the end of the season would be typical though, that’s a thing that could happen, mercedes pulling away till the last quarter and then red bull recovering and maybe getting a close fight.

    3. @David-br Max had made more mistakes than Hamilton actually, almost in every race or Free Practice. Max screw up in Bahrain with the fastest car, Imola qualifying as well, Portugal qualifying where he had the fastest car but made a mistake and again in the race, in Spain as well and in Baku during practice he crashed in the wall and couldn’t manage his tyres and caused that tyre failure because Max got warned by his race engineer to be cautious on his rear tyres because because they were on the limit but Max didn’t care and crashed in the wall because of it. Hamilton on the other hand has made one mistake in Imola but he was unlucky with a slow pitstop as well which everybody seems to ignore which benefitted Max the race lead again and in Baku he switched that button by accident.

      1. @noname I did write ‘big mistakes,’ though, as in going off track and falling far back down the race order. As I also wrote, I do think Hamilton has driven well, maybe even better than Max on average so far – leaving those mistakes aside. But Hamilton has twice been lucky not to have been punished for those errors at Imola and Baku. Where I do think Hamilton has an edge is with his use of tyres over a race. If the races remain close, that could be decisive.

  10. The new rear wing tests could see red bull fall out of the championship fight.

  11. No, it wont go down to the wire. What will stop it, is the Mercedes car outperforming the rest of the field. Lets hope my prediction is wrong so we get a decent season after 8 years of impressive (kudos to Mercedes) but unacceptable boredom.

    1. @Mayrton The 2021 rule change are in Red Bull’s favor (high rake), so if Red Bull doesn’t win this year with the best car (according to GPS data and Helmut Marko admitting it) Red Bull/Max have failed then. There is no excuse not to win this years WDC and WCC with rules in their favor, Mercedes doesn’t have the best car but yet Max is only four points ahead of Lewis.

      1. Lets watch the entire season. You are put on the wrong foot by Monaco and Baku. These are not representative tracks. Yes Marko was right the RB had an edge on these tracks. Lots of races to go on Mercedes tracks however. I guess the Marketing machine was not wasted on a lot of people

  12. if Lewis keep cracking under pressure, but not getting lucky as usual, it seems won’t go to the wire including him, expecting Perez come from nowhere and pick up the goods in every opportunity and get there thru concistency. Constructors however is further apart now.

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