This is Lewis Hamilton’s 15th season in Formula One. No one has won more titles and though seven is a big number he has lost as many as he has claimed. He knows what advantage feels like under a quick car and conversely how hard it is to push water up hill in inferior machinery.
And so it is with a deep sigh that he speaks about his prospects over the closing four races. The 19 points that separate him from championship leader could stand at 30 should Max Verstappen continue to make the most of his opportunities at an Interlagos circuit that is more friendly to Red Bull than to Mercedes.
As Hamilton pointed out in an observation borne out by the stats, the Red Bull has been the quickest car for most of the season and utterly dominant since the summer break despite the anomaly of two Mercedes wins in Russia and Istanbul.
Furthermore, Verstappen has proved a high calibre opponent managing the environment brilliantly, maintaining a balanced disposition in victory and defeat.
Verstappen has won four of the seven grands prix since the summer including the preceding races in the United States in Mexico. The pace of the car’s development has been relentless, Red Bull making the most of the universal aero tweaks introduced last winter which altered the dimensions of the floor designs which conversely punished Mercedes low rake setting.
The changes were made on safety grounds – aren’t they always? The ruling body continually seeking ways to keep speeds sensible in response to a design community employed to make cars quicker.
This kind of structural intervention by the governing body has the dual function of removing advantages baked in over long periods. Red Bull were victims of a similar initiative after Sebastian Vettel knocked off four titles in a row from 2010 to 2013 in a car that harnessed exhaust gasses to aerodynamic effect better than any in the field.
For 2014 the FIA binned the powerful 2.4L V8 engines that produced all that combustible waste in favour of the more efficient and cleaner 1.6L hybrid power units. This was accompanied by radical changes to the chassis and aero modifications to the front and rear wings, the cooling system and exhaust. The net result was a new order with Mercedes leading the way.
The rules revisions for next year will also reset the terms of engagement, which is why Red Bull have pushed so hard to make the most of the 2021 window. Next year is at least in principal spreads the opportunity wider than at any point since the garagistas traded blows with works teams half a century ago. As hard as Mercedes have tried to keep pace with Red Bull, they have not been able to match their aero advantage at the majority of circuits.
And so to Brazil where Hamilton’s task stiffens further after another engine change yielded a second grid penalty of the season – this time five places for Sunday’s Braizilian GP.
“We’ve unfortunately had since mid-year some reliability issues that keep coming back,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said in Austin three weeks ago.
“I think we understand now much better what it is, but it means that there is no durability in running them and that means potential DNFs.”
- 1st: Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 312.5 points
- 2nd: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 293.5
- 3rd: Valterri Bottas (Mercedes) 185
- 4th: Sergio Perez (Red Bull) 165
- 5th: Lando Norris (McLaren) 150
It is a big blow for the Briton, and even the weather is against Hamilton. The rain that greeted the arrival of the teams on Thursday is nowhere in the forecast for the weekend leaving Hamilton seeking help from the gods of chance. Without the intervention of a random variable, it is hard to see how Hamilton keeps the title race alive.
Should Verstappen make it 10 wins on Sunday he has the luxury of not needing another in the final three races, two of which, in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, take place at virgin circuits. Finishing second at each and the final race in Abu Dhabi would be enough to take the title.
We have the diversion of the season’s third sprint race at Interlagos. In its present format the introduction of the shorter contest has not stirred the loins of many. And Hamilton observed there is little to be gained by the extra points on offer if you are not driving the quickest car, or you are serving a five-place grid penalty.
The use of the sprint race to set the grid for the grand prix has changed nothing since in each case the car that set off from pole at Silverstone and Monza won the race. Changes are afoot next year when the season will feature six sprint events. For now the scope for shaking up the order and thus creating interest just isn’t there. That suits Verstappen very nicely. For Hamilton, not so much.