The stage is set for one of F1’s all-time championship battles as the 2021 season enters its final third, starting with the Turkish Grand Prix next week.
Max Verstappen vs Lewis Hamilton already has all the ingredients for the next Senna vs Prost, Schumacher vs Hill or Schumacher vs Hakkinen.
Red Bull and Mercedes aces have traded blows throughout the season, both in terms of wins and on-track incidents at Silverstone and Monza.
Now, just two meager points in the championship separate Hamilton, the veteran seven-time world champion, and Verstappen, the 24-year-old Red Bull prodigy chasing his first.
Here, we take a look at the last seven races scheduled to see who is best positioned to win the 2021 crown.
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STATE OF PLAY
The race wins
* Verstappen won two sprint races and Hamilton lost one (Silverstone)
RUN AT HOME
GRAND PRIX OF TURKEY
Date: October 10 (11:00 p.m. AEST)
Former winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
GRAND PRIX OF THE UNITED STATES
Date: October 25 (6 a.m. AEST)
Former winner: Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes)
GRAND PRIX OF MEXICO
Date: November 8 (6 a.m. AEST)
Former winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
GRAND PRIX OF BRAZIL
Date: November 15 (4 a.m. AEST)
Previous winner: Max Verstappen (Red Bull)
GRAND PRIX OF QATAR
Date: November 21 (time to be confirmed)
GRAND PRIX OF SAUDI ARABIA
Date: December 6 (4:30 a.m. AEST)
GRAND PRIX D’ABU DHABI
Date: December 13 (12 p.m. AEST)
Previous winner: Max Verstappen (Red Bull)
The remainder of the 2021 season is subject to change with several races in doubt.
A tall order for F1 organizers awaits them, mainly due to complications from the coronavirus, but also due to construction issues in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia had been locked up to make their F1 debut for the penultimate race of the season, but the manufacturers are said to be in a race against time to get the venue full.
An F1 official said this week on condition of anonymity that work was being carried out around the clock in Jeddah with buildings still under construction and cranes and excavators still on site.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear whether the F1 swing in America can be completed with Brazil and Mexico, two ‘red list’ countries in the UK – where seven of the 10 teams are based – while the United States is on the Amber List.
Texas, where the United States Grand Prix takes place, is experiencing a third wave of coronavirus with a seven-day average of more than 10,000 per day. The seven-day averages for Mexico City and Sao Paulo are less than 2,000.
The Grands Prix of Canada, Japan, Singapore and Australia have already been canceled in 2021 due to travel and quarantine complications related to the pandemic.
A new Qatar Grand Prix will take Australia’s place on the calendar on November 21.
IS RUN HOME SUITABLE FOR MERCEDES OR RED BULL?
Red Bull boss Christian Horner has said the homecoming doesn’t suit Verstappen any more than it does Hamilton.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff agrees, saying the remaining tracks present no obvious advantage to either of the title contenders.
Team leaders have never been eager to claim favoritism. It’s easier to claim underdog status instead of having a target on your back.
Whether one can believe Horner or Wolff is up for debate.
Historically speaking, homecoming suits Mercedes who won in Turkey, the United States and Mexico at the last request.
That said, two of those wins were back in 2019. And besides, are there any stats from this era of F1 that don’t favor Mercedes?
2021 is clearly a different story from the seven seasons before it, with Red Bull in its strongest position since 2013 – before the introduction of turbo hybrids.
Red Bull have proven they have the best all-around package this season, which will come in handy in the finals.
The title race wouldn’t be so close if Hamilton didn’t touch Verstappen in Great Britain, or if the Dutchman wasn’t touched in the first round in Hungary.
The power tracks are still kind of an Achilles heel for Red Bull given Mercedes’ top straight-line speed, but most of them have already been completed.
The Sochi Autodrom, for example, is classified as a power track because of its long straights. Hamilton won there with a little help from a Lando Norris error. Monza is in the same category and Verstappen was fortunate enough not to lose ground to Hamilton, whom he knocked out at the 1-2 turn chicane.
Of the remaining races, Mexico has long straights and could also be classified as a power track. Hamilton won in Mexico in 2019, although the track turned out to be an anomaly given that Verstappen dominated at the venue in 2018.
Meanwhile, Turkey appears to be a non-negotiable item for Hamilton, who was untouchable at the site in 2020 and is arguably the favorite to win once again.
From there, the ball should pass into Verstappen’s court, with the US, Brazil and Abu Dhabi Grands Prix likely favoring Red Bull.
While the three tracks have at least two long straights, they are canceled out by very technical and fluid sectors which will marginally favor the superior downforce of the Red Bull of Verstappen.
There is no precedent in F1 for Jeddah, although the track shows a series of corners and “esses” which could again favor Red Bull. Losail also has a layout which seems to reward better balance and better traction.
As such, Red Bull is favored in five of the remaining races – the United States, Brazil, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi – albeit slightly.
Mexico forms a 50-50 while Turkey is the only track where Mercedes is favorite.
This is despite what Horner had to say after the Russian Grand Prix.
“I don’t think there are any circuits that stand out as strongly as Russia and Monza,” said Horner.
“For sure Mercedes will be strong in Turkey, they won there last year. But then we start to get to Austin, we should be there or so, and in Brazil and Mexico we still have been strong.
“We don’t know anything about Qatar, we don’t know anything about Jeddah. And then it’s Abu Dhabi. We can therefore say that it is 50-50 in what remains on the table, which slightly favors one team more than the other.
Wolff said he had “stopped trying to anticipate” where Mercedes would be strong, and did not predict wide margins between championship contenders for the remainder of the season.
“I doubt either team will make massive swings up or down, it’s just a matter of continuing to do the best job possible,” he said.
“But I don’t think the drivers or the teams can be comfortable in the current situation because there just isn’t a gap in terms of points.”
WHAT ABOUT MCLAREN’S CHANCES?
The Monza and Sochi races left no doubt that McLaren has improved considerably to the point that it can winning Grand Prix again.
For now, however, he needs an appropriate venue and set of circumstances.
Monza, for example, was a perfect alignment of the stars; a low-grip power track that played into McLaren’s strengths. Meanwhile, Hamilton and Verstappen struggled and Bottas had a big penalty to serve.
Daniel Ricciardo emerged victorious and Norris completed the historic double.
Two weeks later in Sochi, Norris threatened two straight wins for McLaren, but misjudged the track conditions and came out of the lead with two laps to go.
No remaining track is as well suited to McLaren as Monza and, to a lesser extent, Sochi, but there is still a chance that Ricciardo and Norris will perform well.
Mexico is arguably the best opportunity to ruffle the feathers of Mercedes and Red Bull. The long straights in the areas of heavy braking in the first sector are a bit reminiscent of Monza and should suit Ricciardo.
The next best chance is arguably Abu Dhabi given that there are three long straights, although the technical nature of sector three will be a big test for McLaren.
However, given that this is the last race of the season, Ricciardo should be even better equipped to take on the challenge.
The Australian continues to improve this season. Since the summer break he has twice finished fourth and won the Italian Grand Prix.
In comparison, Norris – who dominated the Australian before the Belgian Grand Prix – came 14th, tenth, second and seventh.