Illustration by Grace Kirman.
It’s the 6th June 2021. There are five laps to go in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Max Verstappen started first on the grid and is cruising to another victory to extend his championship lead.
And then the camera cuts to the main straight.
First you see the blue tyre smoke, then your eyes are drawn to the car that, at 200 miles per hour, is careering into the barrier. It ricochets off. The commentators scream – then pause while they try to work out the livery of the car. Who is it? The answer soon comes. “It’s Max Verstappen!”. His tyre had blown. He is out of the race and Lewis Hamilton is promoted to second.
In the blink of an eye, due only to the discriminating hand of Lady Luck, there has been a 28-point swing in the driver’s championship from Verstappen to Hamilton.
Moments like this define a Formula One season.
Hamilton has utterly dominated Formula One since 2014, winning six of the last seven titles. In the process, he has broken a list of records that sounds like a hallucinating F1 fan’s shopping list: most wins, most podiums, most pole positions, most races in the points, most consecutive points finishes, most laps led … And he is currently tied with Michael Schumacher, on seven, for the biggest of them all: most championships.
But Max Verstappen looks set to stop him from getting a record-breaking eighth. Though neck-and-neck in terms of points, that reflects a couple of unlucky races for Verstappen. More telling is that he has led 468 laps so far this season compared to only 128 by Hamilton. And at one point, he was 32 points clear of Hamilton. The last time Hamilton was in such a deficit to someone, it was to Nico Rosberg in 2016. Rosberg went on to win the Championship.
“Max is walking away with it right now and there is not really much we can do about it,” Hamilton himself said a few weeks ago.
What has gone wrong for the man who, for so long, has looked untouchable?
For one, his car is no longer the best.
In part that is because Mercedes were hurt – more so than others – by a rule change designed to reduce the amount of downforce that the floor could generate.
But their performance struggles are also partly strategic. Next year’s rule changes are “a big and hairy affair”, so Mercedes have shifted development focus to next year’s car. Red Bull, meanwhile, are still bringing updates to this year’s car.
This strategy could pay dividends next year. But if the plan was to have their cake and eat it – develop next year’s car and win this year – then they are in for a rude awakening.
Things won’t be so simple next year either. Ferrari and McLaren are both on the up, and, more generally, the field should level out with the introduction of a cost cap. (At present, Mercedes’ budget is almost four times bigger than some teams.)
Hamilton will also face tougher competition from within, with George Russell replacing the unspectacular Valtteri Bottas in the second Mercedes seat. Last year, when Russell deputised for the COVID-ridden Hamilton, he literally drove rings about Bottas, who admitted Russell made him look “crap”. That was despite little preparation and being forced to wear shoes one size too small. Russell won’t drive rings around Hamilton, but neither will Hamilton drive rings around him.
Hamilton and Mercedes are also facing the reality that all periods of dominance come to an end. People lose motivation or look for new challenges. In the last couple of years, Mercedes have lost their Technical Director, Engineering Director, Performance Director and Head of Powertrains.
At one point it looked like Hamilton himself was contemplating his exit. He only signed his contract for this season in February – unprecedentedly late. He has spoken about not wanting to continue racing forever, perhaps going into fashion, or music, or working to improve diversity in motorsport through his Hamilton Commission.
Of course, this is not the first time in the past seven years they have been on the back foot. Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari launched strong challenges in 2017 and 2018 – but Hamilton and Mercedes triumphed both times.
However, there are key differences this time. There were serious questions about whether Vettel was past his best. In a series of costly errors, he did so much spinning that even Alistair Campbell would blush. There are no such questions about Verstappen. He is at the top of his game. And Ferrari had also forgotten how to win. Their last dominant spell ended in 2004 and they’ve been through four different Team Principals since then. Red Bull’s last dominant spell ended much more recently – 2013 – and they are fundamentally the same team, with the same Team Principal, Chief Aerodynamicist, Sporting Director and many others beside.
So although the paddock wisdom still says that you still wouldn’t bet against Hamilton and Mercedes – I’m not sure you would bet for them.
Verstappen’s crash brings out a red flag. After the debris is cleared up, the race restarts, with Hamilton in second.
He gets a better launch than Perez in first. Calmly and clinically, he positions his car to the inside of the first corner, looking set to take the race lead.
Then there is a puff of tyre smoke. His brakes have locked up. He runs wide.
One commentator howls. “Look at Hamilton!” the others shout.
He must wait for the entire field to rejoin the track, and with so few laps to go, he finishes outside the points. 25 points down the drain. An uncharacteristic error.
Mistakes like this define a Formula One season.