Max Verstappen takes on the might of Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes in F1 title chase
On October 10, Max Verstappen regained the lead of the 2021 Formula 1 Championship from Lewis Hamilton after taking the chequered flag in a strong second place at the Turkish Grand Prix, three positions ahead of his Mercedes rival.
Incredibly, it was the sixth time—fourth in six races—that the championship lead changed hands this season. Only six points now separate the two title challengers after 16 rounds, with six to go. The last time two title rivals were separated by that margin or less after as many races, was nine years ago when Sebastian Vettel, then driving for Red Bull, overtook Fernando Alonso by six points after the Korean Grand Prix.
Since then, as the 1.6 litre V6 hybrid engines were introduced in 2014, there has been only one team to rule F1. Mercedes dominated what has come to be known as the "hybrid era" with its drivers winning all championships ever since.
It's what makes Verstappen's challenge, and this season, all the more remarkable.
Here, finally is a driver who is taking on the combined might of Hamilton and Mercedes, a partnership that has overshadowed (at least in terms of records) the most celebrated pairing in F1—the great Michael Schumacher in his legendary red Ferrari.
Having raced at the pinnacle of the sport for 15 years, the 36-year-old Hamilton now owns all major records—most wins, poles and podiums—barring the most important one.
Tied on seven championships with Schumacher, an eighth will see him go past the Ferrari giant to statistically become the greatest ever. With extensive regulation changes lined up for 2022, which could completely shake up the field like in 2009 or 2014, this is perhaps Hamilton’s best chance to go for the record breaking eighth crown.
Except Verstappen is in the way, having won seven races to the Briton's five. Hamilton has not had it this hard in almost a decade. Vettel tested him in 2017 and 2018, but Ferrari’s challenge wilted in the second half of the season with the Mercedes driver running away with the championship. And with all due respect to Hamilton’s current teammate Valtteri Bottas, the Finn is no Nico Rosberg, who remains the last driver to beat Hamilton—that too in the same machinery—when he clinched the 2016 championship in a thriller at Abu Dhabi.
So can Verstappen last the course? The son of former F1 driver Jos Verstappen, the Dutchman is a feisty, unrelenting driver who fights for every inch of the track, defending his position to the limit, and sometimes beyond. His determination to not concede position, aggressive driving style and the will to win has evoked comparisons with the late Ayrton Senna, arguably the greatest driver ever. Verstappen’s talent was on full display when he won the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix on his debut for Red Bull to become the youngest winner in F1 at 18. His success spurred other teams to hire younger drivers.
Now 24 and having won races every year since that famous victory in Catalonia, Verstappen is hungrier than ever to win his first title and end Hamilton’s dominance now that he has a car that can challenge the Mercedes.
It was in Round 7 in France in June that Red Bull realised their potential. “If we can beat Mercedes here, we can beat them anywhere,” Red Bull boss Christian Horner had said then. That weekend, Verstappen did not just take the win but also got pole and fastest lap and made a breathtaking overtaking move, coming up through Hamilton's slipstream in the penultimate lap and cutting past him at the corner. It's a move that defines Verstappen and it could prove to be the turning point if he goes on to win the championship.
This kind of wheel-to-wheel rivalry has meant that the two have also come together this season a couple of times, most alarmingly at Monza when Verstappen bounced over the kerb after making contact with Hamilton’s left rear tyre, launching the Red Bull into the air and over the top of Hamilton’s Mercedes. Both drivers came out of it safe, but were forced to retire.
The last six races—three in the Americas and three in the Middle-East—are poised to be some of the most riveting in F1 in a long time.