Lewis Hamilton goes into the final seven races of the year with a two-point advantage over Max Verstappen in the championship.
Mercedes were expected to make gains on Red Bull over the past two races at Monza and Sochi, two of their strongest venues in recent years. Hamilton duly enjoyed a five-point swing in his favour over those two races.
But that must be considerably less than he was hoping for. Had it not been for a collision between the pair at Monza and a late rain shower at Sochi, he could be in a significantly stronger position.
Red Bull must be especially pleased Verstappen was able to bank a fresh engine at Sochi yet come home second. Meanwhile Mercedes are facing up to the likelihood of having to fit a new power unit to Hamilton’s car at some point over the final rounds, and the consequent points sacrifice that will involve.
With yesterday’s confirmation the Losail International Circuit in Qatar has joined this year’s schedule, the championship run-in is set. But predicting who will be the team to beat in these remaining races is fraught with difficulty. Of the seven rounds still to come, only two held races last year.
The final three races hold the promise of an unpredictable end to the season, as two of the circuits are new to F1 and the last is being extensively modified.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, said he’s “stopped trying to anticipate [which is] historically a strong race for us or not because with the new regulations everything has changed so much.
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“Definitely we knew that that Monza and Sochi would be coming more towards us. The reality is we are where we are and this is the points gap. I doubt that any of the two teams will make massive swings up or down it’s just about really continuing to do the best possible job.”
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner suspects the next race will be a better venue for their rivals, but admitted some of the following rounds may favour Red Bull.
He doubts any of the remaining tracks will suit either team as well as the last two did Mercedes. “I don’t think there’s any circuits that stand out as strongly as Russia and Monza,” said Horner.
“But for sure Mercedes will be strong. They won in Turkey last year, they’ll be strong there. But then we start getting Austin, we should be there or thereabouts, Brazil, Mexico, we’ve always been strong.”
In past seasons the upcoming tracks in the Americas have been particularly strong venues for Red Bull and especially Verstappen. But if Hamilton can remain in touch over those races, the final three rounds look much harder to predict.
“We don’t know anything about Qatar, we don’t know anything about Jeddah,” said Horner. “And then Abu Dhabi. So you can say it’s 50-50 in what’s left on the table [as to] which favours slightly one more team than the other.”
Turkish Grand Prix
Last winner: Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes (2020)
It was almost impossible to judge form at last year’s race in Turkey as the recently re-laid track badly lacked grip. Then rain arrived, further mixing up the field.
Hamilton kept his footing in a race run in treacherous conditions to win and clinch the title. But Verstappen was quickest in both Friday sessions and looked on course to end Mercedes’ run of pole positions until Racing Point unexpectedly annexed the front row.
Red Bull may therefore be more competitive than Horner indicated. Pirelli’s decision to bring softer tyres than last year should also play into their hands, as they’ve tended to prefer these compounds.
United States Grand Prix
Circuit of the Americas
Last winner: Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes (2019)
Red Bull haven’t won at the Circuit of the Americas since 2013 but the sinuous opening sector looks made for the RB16B. Verstappen was less than a tenth of a second away from pole position in 2019.
Mexico City Grand Prix
Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez
Last winner: Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes (2019)
Arguably Verstappen should arrive in Mexico looking for his fourth win in a row at the track. He triumphed in 2017 and 2018, and would have had pole position in 2019 but for a penalty for failing to respond to yellow flags.
Even Horner admitted this has been one of their stronger venues, so this could be a race of damage limitation for Mercedes. Keep an eye on the McLarens, too, as their superior straight-line performance could make them a threat on the long straights in Mexico City.
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Sao Paulo Grand Prix
Last winner: Max Verstappen, Red Bull (2019)
Whichever team holds the upper hand here will reap an added bonus as the Brazilian round will be the final sprint qualifying event of the year. That means an extra three points are up for grabs on Saturday.
Verstappen won on F1’s last visit to the circuit and was on course to do the same in 2018 before he tripped over Esteban Ocon. He put in a virtuoso drive during the rain-hit 2016 race, though Hamilton took that win.
Qatar Grand Prix
Losail International Circuit
Last winner: N/A
It’s anyone’s guess who will be the team to beat in Qatar. Verstappen’s team mate Sergio Perez has at least driven there before, but it was over a decade ago and he remembers little of the event.
Pirelli’s decision to bring the hardest tyres in its range could be good news for Mercedes, who have tended to perform better on the harder rubber.
Saudi Arabia Grand Prix
Jeddah Corniche Circuit
Last winner: N/A
Even more of an unknown than Qatar. Besides being very fast, run-off looks limited in places, so errors could be costly. It already looks like a venue which could produce a surprise twist in the 2021 championship tale.
Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
Yas Marina Circuit
Last winner: Max Verstappen, Red Bull (2020)
Until last year Yas Marina had been a stronghold for Mercedes in the V6 hybrid turbo era. However last year Verstappen put one over Bottas and Hamilton – the latter still ailing after a bout of Covid-19 – to win.
The track’s many slow chicanes had made it a poor venue for racing, but it’s had a badly-needed makeover this year. If the championship is still up for grabs, Yas Marina could finally serve up a scrap to remember.
Quotes: Dieter Rencken
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