Max Verstappen won’t say it, but the reality is that he is pretty much in control of this year’s Formula 1 championship battle after his victory in the Austrian Grand Prix on Sunday.
The Red Bull rider has four wins in the last five races and hasn’t won them all because his left rear tire exploded as he led with five laps to go in the Azerbaijani Grand Prix.
Two months ago, after Lewis Hamilton won the Spanish Grand Prix to secure the Mercedes driver’s third victory in the first four races, Verstappen was 14 points behind the seven-time champion.
Now, with nine races completed, Verstappen leads Hamilton by 32 points. There may well be, as Verstappen keeps reminding everyone, a long way to go – although with the pandemic still on the rise, no one knows exactly how many races there will be this season – but it does. seems increasingly difficult to see a return path for Hamilton from this.
As Hamilton himself said on Sunday, “Max is getting away with this right now and there’s not really much we can do about it. “
Verstappen’s long-term orientation
Verstappen’s second win in a week at the Red Bull Ring was pretty much a carbon copy of the first. He was the fastest man of the whole weekend, he took pole position and he got off to a good start in his own race as soon as the lights went out.
It’s unclear exactly what challenge Hamilton might have faced, as the world champion only started in fourth place and took 20 laps to find a lane through Lando Norris’ McLaren on a stellar weekend. for the 21-year-old Briton. .
By the time he had, Verstappen was long gone and kept walking away. No one at Mercedes seriously thought they had a chance against Verstappen on Sunday.
Hamilton should have finished second, but when an aerodynamically critical piece of bodywork fell from the back of his car as he passed the curbs at the exit of Turn 10 in the normal manner around lap 29, he lost more than 0.5 seconds. performance one lap.
Mercedes was hoping they could use teammate Valtteri Bottas to protect Hamilton from Norris, but when it became clear that this wasn’t going to be possible due to Hamilton’s lack of pace – and rapid tire deterioration – they traded their cars, and Hamilton also fell behind Norris to finish fourth.
The weekend had gone so well for Verstappen – who was cradled on his way to victory by a crowd of 60,000 that appeared to be almost entirely made up of orange-clad fans from his home country – that ‘he could hardly believe it.
“When you start the weekend everyone thinks of you as the favorite,” he said, “but it’s never easy to always deliver what we did today. A great effort from the whole team. The whole of these two weeks here has been amazing. “
And in the championship fight, he keeps coming back to the same old mantra.
“I enjoy it but I’m very focused on the rest of the season,” said Verstappen. “It’s still so long and there are still a lot of points to score. We have to make sure we are back there every weekend and use the car to its full potential. We were very dominant in Austria but we have to make sure we are there again at Silverstone. “
Much relies on Silverstone
The raw stats from the last few races look grim for Mercedes, but there is light in the clouds. Let’s not forget that Hamilton would have won in France two weeks ago had it not been for a team strategic error, and the next stop is the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, which at least in historical terms is truly a Mercedes circuit. .
Mercedes engineers believe part of the explanation for their relatively poor performance in Austria is track specific and that the nature of Silverstone should bring performance back to them.
At the same time, however, there is no doubt that Red Bull has taken a significant step forward with its car in recent races, with developments in the floor, diffuser, front fender, nose and barge boards, and Mercedes didn’t bring any.
There will be some Mercedes upgrades at Silverstone, although Bottas has said he believes they may be the last. A lot of things weigh on them. Will they, and the track, be enough to allow Mercedes to take over Red Bull? And the races after that?
“They added so much performance,” said Hamilton, “and we have a lot of work to do to try to close that gap.
“Hope our car feels better [at Silverstone]. It’s been pretty poor here for the past two weeks – it’s definitely been a few painful races. But we’re going to hold our heads up high and keep trying.
“We will work as much as possible to improve over the next two weeks. We were massively broken down on this trail. It will be interesting to see how it goes in the other races to come. “
The team boss, Toto Wolff, meanwhile spun the positives.
“I’m still a skeptical person, the glass half empty, but I see the positive,” he said. “We have 13-14 races to go. We are one step away from Red Bull and we have lost more points than we should have lost because of our own mistakes.
“It’s clear that in Austria the last two races we haven’t had the performance we need to have to fight Red Bull and we have to pull ourselves together in every area and hopefully perform better on the other tracks. .
“Losing 13 or 14 points isn’t great, but it’s always a long game. It’s against all odds for us now, and it’s clear because they have a performance advantage and you can see it.
“But all these years I’ve tried to keep my feet on the ground by not getting carried away by the performance and now I have to do the opposite.
“We’re not going to give up at this point in the season. We will not give up at any time unless it is no longer mathematically possible to win this championship.
“So we have to look at things with optimism rather than pessimism as we have done in the past. “
Will Red Bull pay the price next year?
Right now there is a distinct feeling that Red Bull, after eight years of lack of success, is throwing everything on this campaign and taking a bit of a bet with 2022 in a season in which the teams battle against caps on budgets and research and development while designing a car to a whole new philosophy of rules the next term.
Wolff has made it clear that Mercedes has already postponed all of its development work until 2022, even though there are still new parts in the production pipeline.
Red Bull, on the other hand, doesn’t say it at all and the tone of team manager Christian Horner is very different from Wolff’s.
“You have to go week after week, race by race,” Horner said on Sunday, “and the team is doing a great job of balancing the challenges this year and next. This is nothing new, we have had big regulatory changes in the past. You just need to balance your resource and apply it to what needs it most. ”
A British champion – and two other future ones
Hamilton won’t see it that way just yet, but if Verstappen ends the long streak of success he’s enjoyed this season, there will always be next year, or the year after.
Over the weekend it was announced that Hamilton had signed another two-year contract with Mercedes, and, although there was never a prospect of him straying from the sport, he said the excitement of the battle with Verstappen had strengthened his resolve to continue.
“The start of this season when the cars were so close in performance – about equal – was one of the most exciting times I’ve had in a while to have this battle with Red Bull.” Hamilton said.
“I was really hoping it would continue like this, but as you saw, they took a huge leap forward.
“Last year was a long journey, it’s a good time to reflect and I woke up thinking about the race and now we are having this close battle, it brought me closer to the team and it makes me dig deeper and i love it. I guess it reinvigorated the love I have for the sport. ”
Still, Hamilton will be approaching 39 by the end of his new contract and his career is clearly closer to the end than the start.
But the idea that Britain’s representation at the top of F1 will continue long after his departure was reinforced over the weekend by two outstanding performances from Norris and George Russell.
Both were brilliant in qualifying – Norris putting the McLaren second on the grid and Russell leading a Williams into the top 10 for the first time – and in the race.
Norris might have beaten Bottas in second place had he not been controversially sanctioned with a five-second penalty for fending off Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez in the first full lap of the race – he has finished just two seconds from the Mercedes.
And Russell lost on a first point for Williams only after 10 formidable defense laps against, among all, the double champion Fernando Alonso.
“I felt a little sad for George,” said Alonso, “because he drove an amazing weekend and when I saw P10 was him I was hoping it would be anyone from other than him.
“I had much better tires and much better traction in turn three and was able to take the plunge with three laps to go. He will hopefully have more podium or victory opportunities in the future. “
A few races ago, Alonso and Russell swapped their helmets. Alonso wrote on the one he gave Russell: “George, you’re fucking fucking hot! Future world champion. “
Few would disagree – and about Norris too.