LUSAIL, Qatar – Momentum is a fickle force at this stage of a Formula One world championship.
Rewind two weeks to the Monday after the Mexican Grand Prix and momentum promised to carry Max Verstappen to his first F1 title. Return to the present day, and it has swung behind Lewis Hamilton off the back of two dominant wins in Brazil and Qatar and looks set to deliver a record-breaking eighth world championship.
In truth, the 2021 title battle hangs in the balance. With two races remaining, Verstappen leads Hamilton by eight points in the standings after conceding 11 at the last two races. If current form holds true, Hamilton will win the title. If it teeters just slightly in either Saudi Arabia or Abu Dhabi, it will be Verstappen’s.
The two most recent races in Brazil and Qatar have undoubtedly suited Hamilton’s Mercedes car. So much so that the performance of Verstappen’s Red Bull looked unrecognisable from one week in Mexico to the next in Brazil.
Such dramatic swings in performance tied to such huge consequences in the championship inevitably lead to suspicion and accusations. Both are natural — and unfortunate — byproducts of a competitive title run-in, and they have only been amplified in recent weeks by the intensity of holding three consecutive race weekends across three different continents.
In Qatar, where the triple-header was capped off by a commanding Hamilton victory, Verstappen’s Red Bull team undoubtedly wobbled. From a points perspective, the weekend was a relative success, with Verstappen minimising the loss to Hamilton in the drivers’ championship with second place while Red Bull closed the gap to Mercedes to five points. But off the track, the battle cries coming from the Red Bull camp sounded increasingly desperate.
The war of words between team bosses Christian Horner and Toto Wolff has provided a consuming subplot to the 2021 season, but also an insight into the confidence each team holds an any one time. Hearts are worn on sleeves alongside Swiss watches and tech sponsors in F1, and it’s common for emotions to overflow. In Qatar, the battle of the bosses hit a new height, leaving Red Bull looking bruised but not quite beaten.
Horner notched up an early victory in the race weekend when, on Friday, the FIA denied Mercedes’ request to review an incident between Verstappen and Hamilton in Brazil. The two drivers went wheel-to-wheel into Turn 4 on lap 48 of the Sao Paulo Grand Prix, only for Verstappen to leave his braking too late and force Hamilton wide.
Horner correctly predicted Mercedes’ case for a review of the incident would not satisfy the requirements set out by the FIA. New evidence, in the form of previously unseen footage from Verstappen’s onboard camera, was not be considered “significant” enough to reopen the case, meaning the move stood as a “racing incident”.
The timing of Horner’s vindication could not have been more sweet for Red Bull, as the stewards’ decision dropped midway through a televised news conference in which he was sat alongside Wolff. The Mercedes man attempted to shrug it…
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