Sky F1 expert Mark Hughes delves into Lewis Hamilton vs Max Verstappen, Mercedes vs Red Bull and the big talking points for the title run-in, with eight races set to decide the 2021 champion; Watch this weekend’s Russian GP live only on Sky Sports F1
Last Updated: 20/09/21 8:38pm
Their incident at Monza has only intensified the competitive tension between title protagonists Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton.
With up to eight races left and just five points between them, it would be no surprise if their duel went all the way to the wire. So what are their prospects as we head into Russia for the first of those eight races?
If there has been a pattern to the see-sawing form of the Mercedes and Red Bull-Honda, it is that the Merc has fared better at circuits heavily rewarding low drag, with the Red Bull’s advantage at its biggest on high downforce tracks.
Sochi is historically a Mercedes stronghold, the very long flat-out stretch from the final corner to Turn 3 suiting its low-rake performance profile very well. That said, historically Red Bull has never before turned up to Sochi with a car as generically competitive as this year’s RB16B.
The remainder of the F1 2021 calendar
|THIS WEEKEND||Russian GP|
|October 10||Turkish GP|
|October 24||United States GP|
|November 7||Mexico City GP|
|November 14||Sao Paulo GP|
|December 5||Saudi Arabia GP|
|December 12||Abu Dhabi GP|
The multiple 90-degree turns of the final sector should give it half a chance of clawing back what it may lose to Mercedes in sector 1. Tire performance in qualifying is always a tricky thing here too, with the challenge being to balance out how much you take from the rears in the first sector to keep them from being too hot in the traction-dominated final one.
That and a difficult challenge in getting the fronts up to temperature at the beginning of the lap make this something of a conundrum. It’s not a given that Merc’s dominance of the Russian track will go unbroken, but of course Verstappen has at least a three-place grid drop there and maybe more if Red Bull elects to change his power unit.
Istanbul’s layout is well-balanced between the sort of high-speed sweeps at which the Mercedes excels and the low-speed response corners where the Red Bull allows Verstappen to shine. But if the track is as cold and gripless as last year, Red Bull’s ability to more readily get its tires up to temperature may be crucial.
Austin has a nicely-balanced set of demands which should see the two cars very evenly matched, but the following Mexico City is invariably Mercedes’ weakest track of the year. The extreme altitude imposes a greater power penalty on its power unit than that of the Honda. That and the track layout should heavily favor Red Bull.
The same but less so probably applies to Interlagos, the second-highest altitude circuit on the calendar, but the air is nowhere near as thin as in Mexico. History suggests the probability of the weather randomising the event is high.
Yet to be confirmed, but expected to take the vacant Japan slot, Qatar looks set to host F1 for the first time. Its track layout looks to make for a fairly even balance between the two cars but obviously that’s without any historical data about how the track surface interacts with the tires and how that might play to one car or the other.
The Jeddah street layout upon which the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix will be held looks a nailed-on Mercedes benefit with its super-long straights and very fast sweeping corners. Abu Dhabi the following week should see a more even match.
The psychological challenge
Following their incidents at Silverstone and Monza, Verstappen and Hamilton have additional psychological pressure in any wheel-to-wheel confrontation. How they each handle that could very well be crucial.
Hamilton knows that Verstappen will not yield, Verstappen cannot know if Hamilton will or not, as he’s varied his approach at different moments through the season. The points situation between them at the decision moment could well decide how Hamilton handles any future moments of potential on-track conflict.
Verstappen’s loss of a power unit in Silverstone’s crash makes it almost certain he will be taking a grid penalty for a new engine in one of the remaining races. Given his three-place grid drop in Sochi for the Monza accident, logically it would be a good time to take the power unit penalty too. The track lends itself well to passing slower cars and it probably wouldn’t take too long even from a double penalised grid slot for Verstappen to be immediately behind the Mercs.
With that power unit change out of the way, Verstappen would then have a fresher engine in the mix than Hamilton for the remainder of the season, in the assumption that Lewis doesn’t take an extra PU of his own.
Staying within the pit stop window of the rival team’s title contender is a key demand for each of the support drivers in this battle, Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez.
Bottas has done a much more convincing job of that this year than Perez, whose qualifying struggles have often nullified how useful he can be to Red Bull in trying to win Verstappen the race.
Bottas has qualified an average 0.15s slower than Hamilton whereas Perez has been more like 0.4s adrift of Verstappen and often, therefore, among slower cars in the opening stint as Hamilton and Verstappen race off into the distance.
But regardless of how all these contributing factors play out, there will be one more which cannot be accounted for but which is historically vitally important: luck.