Verstappen and Hamilton’s title duel enters climax with no margin for error

This season’s F1 championship has produced a fascinating fight to the wire and it would be foolish to predict the final outcome

Formula One is a sport defined by tiny margins, yet for years has not enjoyed a championship as closely competitive as this season’s mighty head-to-head between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. Their duel is entering the endgame which will be as fiercely fought as it is difficult to call. So well-matched are the two drivers and their rides that nerveless, flawless execution will be imperative. Five races remain and they are no place for the faint-hearted.

F1 is revelling in a season such as it has not enjoyed since the turbo-hybrid era began in 2014. Hamilton’s Mercedes team has dominated since then, rarely been challenged and never such that they were in a blow for blow fight to the wire in the final stages. This year Verstappen and Red Bull have brought that battle to them with emphatic verve.

After 17 rounds the Dutchman is just 12 points in front of Hamilton. The lead has ebbed and flowed between them across the season. Neither has gained a definitive advantage, and neither team’s car has proved definitively superior across the range of circuits. Going into the decisive final five meetings which begin with Mexico on 7 November, both drivers are looking for any edge, no matter how small. With Hamilton at 36 aiming to secure a record eighth title and 24-year-old Verstappen, the pretender to his throne, trying to nail his first.

Their cars are remarkably close to one another now in performance, such that it may be in the minutiae of how the remaining venues suit them that makes the difference. Yet in a season that has been gripping throughout, even previously perceived orthodoxies of who should go well where have been turned on their head.

Verstappen’s win at the last round in Austin, a Mercedes stronghold in the past where Red Bull have not won since 2013, was stark evidence of this as noted by the Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. “I think you’ve got to chuck the form book away,” he said afterwards. Indeed even following the form book, the title run-in races taken as a whole appear evenly balanced between the two drivers.

Mexico City should favour Red Bull as it has in the past. Taking place at over 2200m above sea level the thinner air is less of a disadvantage to their Honda engine. Its smaller turbo-charger proves beneficial in the less dense air and delivers an advantage in power and energy recovery. Verstappen has won two of the last three races at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez and at the last race there in 2019 would have taken pole but for a penalty. Red Bull will view this as a must win.

The next round in Brazil is up for grabs with Interlagos favouring neither team. A mixture of high downforce and flat-out pace is required. The middle sector of tight turns through the infield mitigated by the high-speed run from turn 12, Junção, through to turn one. Verstappen won in 2019, the only year Mercedes have been beaten here since 2014. Both drivers will believe Interlagos can be taken.

Lewis Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton cannot afford to make mistakes in the remaining races if he is to hold on to the world title. Photograph: Dppi/LiveMedia/Shutterstock

It is followed by this season’s wild cards that could prove decisive. Neither Qatar nor Saudi Arabia have hosted F1 before and the teams have no experience of how their cars will adjust to track surfaces, how their tyres will work and local conditions. Across many parameters they are a step into the unknown.

On paper the Losail circuit in Qatar with many medium speed corners may just give Red Bull the edge but they will be concerned at how well the track will work their tyres which may, as it did in Turkey, hand the advantage to Mercedes.

The Jeddah Corniche Circuit, newly constructed in Saudi Arabia is promoted as a street circuit but is a purpose built track in the city. The caveats of conditions and surface remain then but with a predominance of flat-out high speed sections the low-drag Mercedes ought to be in its element here.

Which leaves what is likely to be the decider in Abu Dhabi. The Yas Marina track which, similar to Brazil combines quick straights and slower corners, should on this season’s form result in little between the two teams. Mercedes have dominated in the past but last year Verstappen won with a genuine pace advantage. If there is nothing in it, with overtaking notoriously hard, qualifying may take on epic proportions.

One element that may also prove decisive above and beyond any other is how a DNF could sink either drivers’ hopes. Dropping up to 25 points in one race would likely all but end the competition and much as they will be charging hard, circumspect avoidance of white knuckle moments will be imperative and here Hamilton’s experience may give him an edge.

However equally his Mercedes team are feeling the pressure having admitted their concerns over the durability of their engines. Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas has taken six already, with Hamilton on four. An in-race failure or even having to take a replacement would almost certainly end the world champion’s hopes.

These are the elements, the imponderables that make it so fascinating quite apart from what will happen between the two on track. The season has been so hard to predict it would be foolhardy to consider any outcomes of these final five as hard and fast but if we’re lucky it will go to the wire and will be decided by those tiny margins.

Contributor

Giles Richards

The GuardianTramp

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