“Max is walking away with it right now.”
After watching a rival driver win a third race in a row for the first time in over five years, Lewis Hamilton was adamant in Austria: Max Verstappen, the young contender for his thrown, is now the Formula 1 2021 title favourite.
- Damon Hill on Hamilton vs Verstappen and why British GP is key
- British GP: New F1 format, new Silverstone schedule
Heading to his home British GP, it’s certainly fair to say Hamilton has a steep uphill battle if he is going to claim that record-breaking eighth crown this year, having slipped 32 points behind Verstappen – a deficit he has seldom faced, and one he has never fought back to win a title from before.
But how did Verstappen and Red Bull snatch the momentum from Hamilton and Mercedes, who led both championships less than two months ago? And can the world champions rise to the challenge?
This is the story of a thrilling 2021 season so far…
Bahrain: Hamilton’s triumph against the odds
Heading to the season-opener, it was paddock consensus that it was Red Bull – and not winners of the last seven titles, Mercedes – who had the better package. And that played out through much of the weekend, with Verstappen comfortably on pole and ahead in the race in the early stages.
But a combination of Mercedes strategy – undercutting Red Bull – and superb Hamilton management out in front led to an epic conclusion, with Verstappen charging up behind the seven-time champion in that faster car.
Hamilton held his nerve and, critically, Verstappen miscued his one overtaking opportunity late on by running wide in passing the Mercedes. He had to cede position afterwards, and wouldn’t get close again.
A thrilling wheel-to-wheel battle between F1’s two stars, who had rarely gone head-to-head before, represented the perfect start to the season – and it was a sensational one for Hamilton, given his win against the odds.
POINTS: HAMILTON 25-18 VERSTAPPEN
Imola: Verstappen wins, Hamilton’s lucky break
The Emilia Romagna GP delivered more F1 drama, with Mercedes right back in the fight with Red Bull – but it was Verstappen who triumphed on Sunday to kickstart his season, as a rare Hamilton error ruined his chances.
Verstappen actually started down in third in damp conditions but quickly passed team-mate Sergio Perez and the pole-sitting Hamilton into the first corner – where the two title protagonists touched wheels. Hamilton was just beginning to fight back when he spun off into the gravel, and it looked like his race was very much over.
But not only did Hamilton make it out, but an opportune Safety Car allowed him to come back out in ninth, and he made light work of recovering to take second behind Verstappen.
POINTS: HAMILTON 44-43 VERSTAPPEN
Portugal: Lewis overtakes Max en route to domination
Three races, three wheel-to-wheel battles between Hamilton and Verstappen. But it was Mercedes who had the upper hand in Portimao. Hamilton did drop down to third in the early stages behind Valtteri Bottas and Verstappen, but overtook the off-guard Red Bull driver and then his team-mate on his way to a dominant victory.
The solace for Verstappen was that he managed to get past Bottas despite Mercedes’ pace advantage, limiting the world champions’ early lead.
POINTS: HAMILTON 69-61 VERSTAPPEN
Spain: Merc masterstroke as Hamilton takes charge
Mercedes once again had the edge on Red Bull at one of their strongholds, but it was Verstappen who led for much of the race after a superb lunge on a far-from-aggressive Hamilton into the first corner.
Hamilton, however, was hunting his prey from then on and an overtake appeared a matter of time – before Mercedes pulled the trigger and fitted him with fresh tyres. The move dropped him more than 20 seconds behind Verstappen, but with a 2s-per-lap pace advantage, a pass was inevitable and Hamilton executed it with typical ease.
After a close start to the season, Hamilton and Mercedes were starting to look rather ominous…
POINTS: HAMILTON 94-80 VERSTAPPEN
Monaco: Verstappen takes first title lead, Hamilton suffers
The famous Monte Carlo streets provide as unique a test as it comes in F1, one that Red Bull have typically relished and one that Mercedes, even in their dominant years, have not always passed with flying colours. But few would have predicted such contrasting weekends for Verstappen and Hamilton.
Hamilton struggled with his setup from Thursday right through to Sunday in Monaco, qualifying way down in seventh and then, stuck behind Pierre Gasly and even overcut by Sebastian Vettel, finished in that position.
Verstappen, meanwhile, inherited pole from Charles Leclerc due to his car damage and then comfortably delivered his first victory in the Principality – one that gave him his first-ever championship lead.
POINTS: HAMILTON 101-105 VERSTAPPEN
Baku: Hamilton fails to capitalise on rival’s puncture
The Azerbaijan GP always seems to throw up some chaos, even when you least expect it…
Everything was pointing towards a Verstappen victory as he led a Red Bull one-two – with Hamilton not able to match Max or Perez in the race – with few laps remaining. But a dramatic and cruel tyre puncture both ended the title leader’s race completely, and gave Hamilton the perfect chance to claw back some points.
Then came more drama. Hamilton started second for the race restart and looked set to pass Perez into Turn One, when he inadvertently switched a brake switch on his Mercedes steering wheel and missed the corner completely. That dropped him out of the points, leaving Perez to win.
POINTS: HAMILTON 101-105 VERSTAPPEN
France: Verstappen revenge with late pass on Hamilton
After the street races of Monaco and Baku, many expected the more ‘normal’ French track at Paul Ricard to lead Mercedes to return to the form they had shown in Portugal and Spain. But Red Bull appeared to take a step forward with minor upgrades – and it was Verstappen who beat the Mercedes to pole.
An uncharacteristic mistake at the start of the race allowed Hamilton back through, but Red Bull and Verstappen pulled off a mighty undercut to get back ahead, and then pitted from the lead just 14 laps later – committing to a somewhat risky strategy given Hamilton and Bottas now had track position.
But it turned out to be a masterstroke, with Verstappen storming through Bottas and then closing up to Hamilton, overtaking the Mercedes, who didn’t put up much of a fight, on the penultimate lap to extend his title advantage.
POINTS: HAMILTON 119-131 VERSTAPPEN
Styria: Home comforts for Verstappen as run continues
One of the themes of the France weekend was Red Bull – able to run less downforce than Mercedes – appearing to have a big straight-line speed advantage. That was a recipe for success at their home and high-speed Red Bull Ring circuit in Spielberg, and Verstappen made the most of it with a dominant lights-to-flag win from pole.
The only consolation for Hamilton was that he finished second, although it was now clear that Red Bull were on the charge.
POINTS: HAMILTON 138-156 VERSTAPPEN
Austria: Perfection for Verstappen, dejection for Hamilton
The second Austria race resulted in more of the same for Verstappen – who was perhaps even more dominant as he added the fastest lap bonus point to his collection from the previous weekend – while Hamilton hit problems.
After overtaking the McLaren of Lando Norris, Hamilton looked likely to ease to second place again, but picked up unexpected floor damage over the heavy kerbs and quickly started losing time to cars behind.
He was passed by Bottas, and then by Norris, and had to settle for fourth place. While only a six-point difference between second and fourth, Verstappen’s title lead was now the equivalent of more than a race victory…
POINTS: HAMILTON 150-182 VERSTAPPEN
Silverstone: Can Hamilton and Mercedes hit back?
Hamilton returns to home soil for a British GP like never before this weekend, with a new schedule and format with the F1 Sprint setting the grid for Sunday’s showpiece race.
And clawing back some of that margin may be critical for the Englishman.
He will be aided by an, albeit small, Mercedes upgrade, which should help the Silver Arrows at the very least close the gap on Red Bull, on a track they have historically been mighty at.
Verstappen vs Hamilton: How it stands
More solace for Hamilton is the fact the title margin could actually have been bigger if not for Verstappen’s Baku tyre blowout. Without that, Verstappen would have been celebrating five wins in a row heading to Silverstone.
While Verstappen has never won the British GP, he did claim victory the last time F1 raced at Silverstone – beating Hamilton in the 70th Anniversary GP last August.
If Verstappen does triumph this weekend, ahead of a Hungarian GP pre-summer break which should suit Red Bull, then he really will have taken a big step towards that maiden title…
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