Lewis Hamilton notched his 100th Formula 1 race victory by taking the chequered flag in Sochi two weeks ago, but such is the ferocity of this season’s drivers’ championship contest the seven-times world champion likely valued the points advantage it gave him over Max Verstappen over any symbolic milestone.
It’s been a long time since F1 witnessed a title duel like this one. Indeed, the contest between Hamilton and Verstappen has swung one way and then the other. This pattern continued with Hamilton’s victory at the Russian Grand Prix, which followed on from Verstappen’s victory at the Dutch Grand Prix two races before that.
— Formula 1 (@F1) October 6, 2021
Sandwiched in between was the collision at Monza where Verstappen ended up on top of Hamilton with both drivers eliminated as a consequence. This incident saw a slight drop in tension in Sochi, with the two title contenders determined to finish the race after a series of crashes in 2021, but the friction between the two head-strong characters certainly remains.
While Hamilton crossed the line first in Sochi, Verstappen had good reason to be satisfied with his second place finish having started the race at the back of the pack. After taking a grid place penalty for his role in the Monza crash and replacing a power unit, this represented excellent damage limitation from the Dutch driver. The pain of a difficult weekend could have been so much worse.
Now, there is speculation that Mercedes might take a similar penalty for a power unit change ahead of this weekend’s Turkish Grand Prix. Hamilton has already raced with three engines in 2021, the maximum permitted in any one season, but with seven races left until the end of the season the defending champion might require a fourth.
“It’s a possibility,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff admitted when asked whether Hamilton could take a fourth engine before the end of the season. “When, and how, is not yet decided. Most important is that you don’t DNF because of a reliability issue. You can cope with swings, whether you finish second, third, I think that is OK, the championship is going to go long. But if you don’t finish…”
Got race cars to build. 🔧⚙️💪 Busy one for the Team in Istanbul. pic.twitter.com/DscuOrUyYe
— Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team (@MercedesAMGF1) October 7, 2021
Of course, it wasn’t Verstappen who pushed Hamilton all the way in the Russian Grand Prix. Instead, it was Lando Norris who went toe-to-toe with the seven-times world champion, coming within just a handful of laps of his maiden F1 race victory. Had it not been for an end-of-race deluge, Norris surely would have held off Hamilton in Sochi.
McLaren have serious pace right now having achieved an historic one-two at the Italian Grand Prix and led the majority of the Russian Grand Prix. They will have to be taken seriously in Turkey with Norris and Daniel Ricciardo already having proved themselves capable of surviving among the four drivers of the ‘Big Two.’
Last year’s Turkish Grand Prix was a real challenge for drivers due to challenging weather conditions and a newly resurfaced track that lacked grip. Organisers say the grip issue has now been resolved due to the use of high pressure water blasting, but rain is expected over the race weekend which could bring yet more unpredictability to this season.
Ferrari have already taken the decision to change Carlos Sainz’s power unit for the Turkish Grand Prix, meaning the Spaniard will start the race from the back of the grid. This will surely be frustrating for Sainz given how well he performed in Sochi, where he started on the front row and finished on the podium (third). It will be difficult for him to build momentum from this.
— McLaren (@McLarenF1) October 7, 2021
Charles Leclerc got the benefit of a new power unit for the Russian Grand Prix, even if his final result didn’t make that clear, and so Ferrari could be in a good position for the final seven races of the season. The Scuderia have some work ahead of them to catch McLaren in the race to finish third in the constructors’ championship, but their car is improving with almost every outing.
By this stage of the season, it’s natural that some teams and drivers have already started looking to next year. Alfa Romeo, for instance, will welcome Valtteri Bottas for 2022 with Kimi Raikkonen retiring from the sport. They have yet to make a decision on who will partner Bottas, though, with Antonio Giovinazzi still to earn his seat. The Italian needs a good result at Istanbul Park this weekend.
George Russell is another who surely can’t wait for 2022 to start with the 23-year-old set to join Mercedes as Hamilton’s new teammate next season. Widely seen as a future world champion, Russell will still want to finish his three-year stint with Williams strongly and carry the historic team as high up the constructors’ standings as possible.
There is, however, still plenty to be decided before this season is over, including the most compelling title race in a number of years. Hamilton has fond memories of Istanbul Park after winning the 2020 Turkish Grand Prix in the week. In fact, it was where he clinched his record-equalling seventh world championship.
That experience could give Hamilton the edge over Verstappen this weekend as it has in a number of close-fought races this season. Too many times in 2021, Verstappen has allowed his youthful exuberance to get the better of him. While the Dutchman might be accomplished beyond his years, Hamilton is still better at holding it together when it matters most.
Nothing, in terms of the 2021 drivers’ championship, will be decided at Istanbul Park like it was last year, but the Turkish Grand Prix will provide another indicator of where the title is heading. Just two points separates Hamilton and Verstappen right now. There has been barely anything between them all season. That might not be the case by the time the chequered flag comes down on Sunday.