For the first time since 2012 two drivers from rival teams face each other in a championship fight which has a serious chance of going down to the final race.Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen have collided twice already this season. Even if they manage to avoid each other, the prospect of an unworthy end to the season by quirk of the rules or some other avoidable hitch, remains a distinct possibility.
Will F1 avoid a championship anti-climax in the final two races of a memorable year’s racing?
Stewards’ decisions are often hotly disputed. But the pressure to get their calls right – and make them quickly – is dramatically heightened in the face of a championship nail-biter like this one.
They’ve proven willing to take sanctions against both title contenders this year – notably Hamilton at Silverstone and Verstappen after Monza. But their refusal even to investigate Verstappen’s contentious move on lap 48 in Brazil caused uproar, flying in the face of penalties given for far lesser infringements earlier in the season.
The waters were muddied still further in Qatar, where a meeting between drivers and race director Michael Masi left many competitors unsure what the stewards consider fair and unfair defensive moves. This controversy may easily breed more of the same.
The vexed matter of track limits lay at the heart of the Brazil controversy. It’s hard to imagine Verstappen would have lunged down the inside of Hamilton from a huge distance back if he hadn’t known there was an asphalt run-off on their outside of the corner.
F1 continues to show little interest in replacing low kerbs and asphalt with grass and gravel run-offs which largely prevent drivers being able to run wide and gain an advantage. This creates yet more work for the stewards and further potential for acrimony. Changes to track limits rules during race weekends, sometimes between qualifying and the race, have added to the confusion.
The season began with one championship rival being told to let the other one past because of a track limits violation. How depressing it would be if the title was decided that way.
Other track limits exploits are also possible. Monza gave an illustration of how: Perez finished third on the track but was relegated behind Bottas for cutting the track to keep the Mercedes driver behind. Without Perez in front of him, Bottas could have threatened the leading McLaren drivers for victory.
It doesn’t take a leap of imagination to see how badly a championship contender could be affected by their rival’s team mate cutting a corner, holding them up, and refusing to let them by. A five-second penalty would be a meagre price to pay for guaranteeing their team some silverware.
Fastest lap bonus
F1 trumpeted the reintroduction of the bonus point for fastest lap two years ago, claiming it would add a new dimension to the racing. But to some, all it’s created is a contrivance which has nothing to do with real racing.
Now that the championship is going down to the final races, those bonus points could become precious, even decisive. At Silverstone we saw an early sign of the lengths teams may go to exploit this: Red Bull gave up a point (and potentially more) for Sergio Perez so they could pit him for fresh tyres and set the fastest lap, taking it away from Hamilton. The upshot was Red Bull gave up a point in the constructors’ championship to deny Hamilton a point in the drivers championship.
How much further are they – and Mercedes – prepared to take these tactics? After the United States Grand Prix Red Bull team principal Christian Horner defended the team’s decision not to repeat the move when Perez was running third, because sacrificing his podium finish would have been “brutal”.
Would he make the same decision with the drivers’ championship on the line? And what if that call cost them team enough points to lose the constructors’ championship? The needless complexity F1 introduced to its points system could create farcical outcomes.
Team mates and ‘stable mates’
Hamilton and Verstappen have both benefited from the assistance of their team mates at times this season. Whether that’s been aiding their passage or delaying their rivals, so far everything’s been above board.
But while this conduct is increasingly expected of team mates, what about drivers connected more loosely with the title fight? Red Bull has a second team – AlphaTauri – and Mercedes has three engine customers. Could we see a repeat of the DTM’s controversial finale in F1, where ‘stable mates’ swung the outcome? Should this kind of collusion be permitted?
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff is adamant that such tactics are “not going to happen in Formula 1”. But exactly that appeared to take place in Qatar. After Verstappen appeared on the tail of Pierre Gasly early in the race the AlphaTauri driver was told “you can let him by”. Gasly then ran wide – seemingly accidentally – then delayed activating his DRS until Verstappen had overtaken him.
One championship contender – Verstappen – has already suffered a spectacular tyre failure which cost him dearly in the points standings. At the last race, a series of further punctures struck. Significantly, this took place at the Losail International Circuit, a track F1 hadn’t previously raced at.
F1 heads to another new circuit this weekend and the championship will conclude on the extensively remodelled Yas Marina circuit. The latter will see lap times fall by 10 to 15 seconds, yet the sport’s official tyre supplier has decided to stick with its plans to bring the softest rubber in its range.
Several of the drivers who experienced punctures in Qatar expressed their displeasure over the latest failures, including the team mates of one of the title contenders. How confident can F1 be that it will avoid further repeats at its upcoming unfamiliar venues?
Both teams have exchanges blows over the legalities of their cars over the course of the season. Indeed, it hasn’t stopped at the cars – pit stop procedures were in the crosshairs at one stage.
Red Bull raised questions over the legality of Mercedes’ rear wing at Losail, claiming their rivals had vastly superior straight-line speed. Once a new test was been introduced Red Bull declared themselves satisfied, notwithstanding the fact the new test has no regulatory force at present.
Is there another row to come? And might either team mount a technical protest after the final race of the season in a desperate last throw of the dice to secure the title?
F1’s most controversial championship conclusions have usually involved the contenders tangling with each other. A spate of such incidents occured between 1989 and 1997, during which time four title fights ended that way.
Hamilton and Verstappen have hit each other twice this year and nearly did so again in Brazil. It’s not hard to imagine it could happen again.
But while some of F1’s rules and practices have arguably created possibilities for unsatisfactory championship scenarios to arise, this one is probably impossible to prevent. Collisions happen even when the stakes aren’t as sky-high as this.
The only thing those in charge can do is ensure both drivers understand they do not stand to gain from causing contact with the other. That means the stewards being prepared to take an ill-gotten championship away from someone. Although that would be perhaps the most controversial outcome of all, the precedent exists.
Hopefully it won’t come to that – or any of the scenarios outlined above – however likely they may be.
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2021 F1 season
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- New insights but notable omissions in Drive to Survive’s account of F1’s 2021 finale