Updated: December 12, 2021 8:50:29 am
The closest Formula One season in almost a decade comes down to one final race. Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton – current champion, seven-time winner and one of the greatest to ever sit in a Formula One race car, goes up against Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen – a young, pedal-to-the-metal Dutch driver that has taken the fight to Hamilton in ways only a few have. Both have had ups and downs through this season and have had to face increasing regulations, new rules and technical difficulties while having to navigate each other’s warring personalities and desires to end up as champion.
How close is the Drivers’ Championship between Hamilton and Verstappen?
Both drivers are currently dead equal on 369.5 points. Verstappen holds a slight advantage over Hamilton because he has won nine races, as compared to the British driver’s eight. Verstappen has 17 podiums to his name this season while Hamilton has 15.
In terms of form, Hamilton has the faster car and the results over the past few races have backed this up. Abu Dhabi is a well-known haunt for Mercedes to be successful. But that being said, the last time a title was decided in Abu Dhabi was when Hamilton lost to teammate Nico Rosberg in 2016.
While Mercedes’ car is currently flying, Red Bull’s RB16B isn’t too far off. If a crash in the last corner of qualifying didn’t happen, Verstappen could very well have taken pole position in the previous race at Saudi Arabia and possibly shut down any title-winning attempts of Hamilton.
How Hamilton clawed his way back into the Drivers’ Championship
Hamilton and Mercedes’ comeback after a poor start to the season can be divided into three crucial junctures. Firstly, it is interesting to note that the new F1 season came with some crucial regulations. On one hand, teams were supposed to use the same model of cars from last year. But new regulations meant some crucial aerodynamic changes would alter some designs.
This change hit Mercedes the most since the new regulations were meant to alter the downforce of cars, a key area where the Mercedes garage excelled in. The changes were primarily made with regards to the floor of the cars, the rear brake duct winglets and the diffuser fences. These changes lead to a Mercedes car that had won the 2020 season at a canter, struggling to keep up with the Red Bull cars at the start of the 2021 season.
The second crucial juncture arrived midway into the season during the British Grand Prix. The very changes that forced Mercedes to fall behind Red Bull were streamlined and suddenly they had a competitive car once again. Both Hamilton and second driver Valtteri Bottas said the changes weren’t significant, but race pace and the results suggested otherwise.
The third decisive act that set Hamilton up for a race to the top towards the end of the season were the engines.
How have Mercedes’ engine management risks paid off?
With no real incentive other than performance issues, Mercedes in the Sao Paolo GP decided to make their fifth internal combustion engine (ICE) change of the season. It meant that Hamilton would have to serve out a five-place grid penalty. That penalty was further compounded when a rear wing issue meant that he was disqualified from the qualifying session.
But the Mercedes garage had faith that in a track like Interlagos where overtaking was easier. And that faith paid off when Hamilton drove the race of a lifetime and from the last position, went on to win the race and breath life back into his attempt to win the eighth world championship of his career.
What can Verstappen do to stop Hamilton on Sunday?
There is a famous 2019 interview of Verstappen conducted by the BBC where he spoke about his need to not be liked and that he would rather win five championships, even if it meant that he wouldn’t be the most liked person on the circuit.
“Like [with] overtaking,” Verstappen said. “If I have to touch, I’ll touch. It’s not like it always needs to be in the cleanest way. Let’s say it like this – after my career, if I would have won five championships but I’m maybe not the most liked person, for me that doesn’t matter, because at the end of the day, it’s all about winning.”
The reason this quote is highlighted in 2021 is because Verstappen can very well crash his car into Hamilton’s and as long as the Brit is out of the race, the title belongs to the 24-year-old Dutchman. There is historical precedent for the same with none other than Michael Schumacher doing this twice in his career. While he was successful against Damon Hill in 1994, Jacques Villeneuve’s Williams survived the German’s attempt at cheating his way onto the title.
Red Bull’s Christian Horner has said that he wants a clean race from Verstappen. “We want to win it on the track,” he says, “not in the stewards’ room, not in a gravel trap. It has been a tough fight, all the way through the year. There has been some fantastic racing. I hope it is a fair and clean race in Abu Dhabi.”
Whether this happens or not is another matter, mainly due to the animosity between both drivers that has festered through the season.
Will personal animosity decide Sunday’s winner?
Verstappen believes that Hamilton’s stature has made the stewards look rather unfairly upon himself. When asked if his opinion of Hamilton and Mercedes had changed over the course of their battle in the pre-race presser ahead of the Abu Dhabi GP, Verstappen was blunt. “Yes, very much so,” he said. “And not in a positive way.”
The statement was made with regards to a penalty handed to him by stewards in the Saudi Arabi GP. Hamilton responded by saying, “I do believe that everyone here racing comes to win,” he said. “I like to believe everyone wants to do it the right way.”
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