If Lewis Hamilton is to retain his Formula 1 drivers’ championship and make history by becoming world champion for an eighth time, his victory at the Sao Paulo Grand Prix on Sunday will be looked back on as a turning point in his 2021 season, and in Max Verstappen’s too.
Everything went against Hamilton. First, he took an engine penalty that dropped him five places down the grid, then the Brit was controversially disqualified from qualifying which put him at the back of the pack for Saturday’s sprint race. However, Hamilton wasn’t to be denied as he dramatically took the chequered flag at Interlagos on Sunday.
It served as a reminder of Hamilton’s quality. Many are quick to play down the 36-year-old’s ability due to the technical superiority of his machinery, but there is nobody better at making their way through the pack than Hamilton who is arguably the best overtaker in the history of the sport. He likes a challenge.
“From my own personal experience it’s been one of the most challenging if not the most challenging with the things that we’ve faced during the weekend,” Hamilton said after his win at the Sao Paulo Grand Prix, reflecting on his toughest race of the season. “In terms of driving, it’s maybe my best.”
With just three races of the season remaining, the difference between Verstappen and Hamilton at the top of the drivers’ championship now stands at just 14 points. A third successive Verstappen victory in Brazil would have all but settled the duel between the two drivers, but it now seems likely that the contest will go down to the final race of 2021 in Abu Dhabi.
Lewis and Valtteri are quite the team 🤜🤛
— Formula 1 (@F1) November 17, 2021
This weekend will see F1 travel to Qatar for the first time and this unfamiliarity will add another layer of intrigue to this compelling title duel between the two drivers and teams. The Losail Circuit will be unknown to the majority of the drivers and certainly to Hamilton and Verstappen who have never raced there before.
Hamilton will have the benefit of a newer engine that was fitted for the Sao Paulo Grand Prix. Mercedes have made great progress since the British Grand Prix and now hold a single point advantage at the top of the constructors’ championship with Red Bull now back in their role as chasers, not frontrunners.
Mercedes and Red Bull have been at each others’ throats for much of the year, but there is also tension between the Silver Arrows and the FIA after the harsh punishments handed out to them in Brazil. “I think we’ve just had many, many punches in the face this weekend with decisions that could have swung either side, against us or for us,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said after Sunday.
“When always the decisions swing against you, it’s just something that I’m just angry about, and I will defend my team, my drivers to what comes. I’ve always been very diplomatic in how I discuss things. But diplomacy has ended today.” The pressure is affecting everyone as F1 relishes the most keenly contested end to a season in a long time.
Some suggest the Losail Circuit will suit Mercedes and their W12 car with the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix and Abu Dhabi Grand Prix also potentially suited to the Silver Arrows. Another Hamilton race victory this weekend would add to the sense that the seven-times world champion has rediscovered his groove again after a difficult few weeks.
First taste of Losail under the lights. 💡🤩 pic.twitter.com/fDR3vNw6ap
— Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team (@MercedesAMGF1) November 17, 2021
However, there have been a number of surprises this season with more likely before the trophies are handed out. While Mercedes have a fresher engine in Hamilton’s car, their track record this season suggests that will degrade quicker which could see the Silver Arrows ease off as they come into the final three races of the season.
Qatar won’t just play host to a battle between Hamilton and Verstappen, however. Valtteri Bottas, who has found some strong form since it was announced he would be joining Alfa Romeo in 2022, and Sergio Perez are also scrapping for podium finishes.
What’s more, it’s not just Mercedes and Red Bull doing battle either. There is just 31.5 points between Ferrari and McLaren in the race to finish third in the constructors’ championship, although recent trends suggest that might be enough of a cushion for the Scuderia to achieve their ambition for 2021. Indeed, Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz look to have the edge on Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo right now.
If, however, the Losail Circuit is to suit Mercedes, there’s a good chance it will also suit McLaren with the same power unit. Norris, who started the season so strongly, has finished in the top six just once in the last nine races. Meanwhile, Ricciardo has failed to finish in the points at all in the last two races. McLaren need better in Qatar or they could see third place in the constructors’ championship slip through their fingers.
— McLaren (@McLarenF1) November 18, 2021
Alpine and AlphaTauri are also engaged in a scrap for position in the constructors’ standings with the two rival teams locked on the same points – 112. Pierre Gasly continued his strong season with a seventh-place finish at the Sao Paulo Grand Prix while Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon also finished in the points. Gasly could do with some help from his teammate Yuki Tsunoda who continues to struggle.
Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Haas and Williams are all preparing for 2022, when F1’s new regulations will come into play, but Sunday’s event in Qatar will be all about the teams that still have plenty to race for. The Qatar Grand Prix might not match the Sao Paulo Grand Prix for pure racing drama, but the tension could not be higher.