2021 F1 Betting Preview: Sao Paolo Could Be Lewis Hamilton’s Last Chance To Make Up Ground on Max Verstappen

Max Verstappen took a big step towards winning his first F1 drivers’ championship by taking the chequered flag at last week’s Mexican Grand Prix. Another race victory at this weekend’s Sao Paolo Grand Prix would surely see the 24-year-old put one hand on the trophy with seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton disappearing in his rear view mirror.

Mercedes surprised many by locking out the front row in qualifying at the Autodromo Hermanos, but Red Bull’s superior pace was clear on race day as Verstappen took the lead from Valtteri Bottas into Turn One. From that point on, the Dutchman couldn’t be caught with teammate Sergio Perez also finishing on the podium.

If Hamilton is to retain his championship, he will surely need to take the chequered flag in Brazil. The gap between the Brit and Verstappen now stands at 19 points with only four races of the 2021 season remaining. He simply can’t allow that gulf to grow any wider. Hamilton must start making up some of the ground.

It’s now four races since Hamilton last won (Russian Grand Prix). What’s more, he has just five race victories compared to Verstappen’s nine. Hamilton is among the best at keeping himself in contention with strong points finishes, but everything now looks to be trending in Verstappen’s direction. 

“I’m a pretty realistic person, but I love motor racing, because anything can happen,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said after the Mexican Grand Prix. “None of us are ever going to leave this circuit with the mentality of this is going away from us. There’s four races to go, four wins to take, four DNFs to suffer. And we will just continue fighting.”

It’s widely expected that Mercedes and Red Bull will be closer to each other at Interlagos, a track where both teams have enjoyed success in the past. However, if Red Bull pull clear of their rivals as they did so comprehensively at the Autodromo Hermanos it would be another sign of the dominance they now enjoy at the front of the field.

Verstappen’s duel with Hamilton has dominated the agenda in F1 all year, but the constructors’ championship is also producing drama with just one point between Mercedes and Red Bull. It’s not just Hamilton and Verstappen racing under pressure at this stage. Bottas and Perez also need to keep delivering results for the good of their respective teams.

“He has found his form in the last three or four races and that’s just presenting us with so many more options,” Red Bull team principle Christian Horner said after the Mexican Grand Prix, hailing the performance of Perez. “He’s totally in tune with that, he’s asking all the questions from the car as well, and I have to say it’s probably one of the best, if not the best, team spirit we’ve ever had in this team.”

Bottas has responded well since it was announced he will be leaving Mercedes for Alfa Romeo at the end of the year, but the Finn’s trademark bad luck struck again in Mexico as he was spun around on the opening lap. This, along with a slow pit stop, contributed to a 15th place finish for Bottas. Mercedes will need more from him in Brazil.

The scrap between Ferrari and McLaren for third place in the constructors’ championship also warrants attention with the Scuderia seemingly in their groove. Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz finished fifth and sixth respectively at the Mexican Grand Prix which was enough to pull Ferrari above McLaren as Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo start to fall away.

Norris enjoyed an extremely impressive first half of the season, but hasn’t finished higher than seventh since McLaren’s one-two at the Italian Grand Prix back in September. Ricciardo hasn’t fared much better. After a positive season, it might be the case that McLaren are dropping off at the worst possible time.

Pierre Gasly could be a force to be reckoned with this weekend. Not only did the Frenchman achieve one of his best finishes of the season in Mexico, crossing the line in fourth, Interlagos is where he achieved his first ever podium in F1. Gasly has scored 86 of AlphaTauri’s 106 points in 2021 and has more than proved his ability after an ill-fated stint as Verstappen’s teammate at Red Bull in 2019.

For many teams, focus has already turned towards 2022. Alfa Romeo are the only team not to have finalised their driver lineup for next year with Antonio Giovinazzi still fighting for his future. The Italian’s recent performances have been less than impressive and so he might need to finish in the points at Interlagos to force his superiors to hand him another contract.

This weekend will mark the first time since 2019 that F1 has rolled into Interlagos, one of the most historic and storied tracks in the sport. The Sao Paolo Grand Prix will also witness the final sprint race of the season following successful test events at Silverstone and Monza. This means qualifying will take place on Friday with the final grid order for Sunday’s race finalised in the sprint on Saturday.

Hamilton and Verstappen both need as many points as they can find and so the Sao Paolo sprint could have a sharper edge than the previous two sprint races witnessed this season. Hamilton in particular will surely be aware of how a sprint race victory followed by a race victory could get him back in the drivers’ championship race.

There is a scenario in which the most compelling title duel in a number of years ends in an anticlimactic manner with Verstappen making the most of a superior car, but Mercedes must keep in mind that the Autodromo Hermanos has long suited their rivals. It’s at Interlagos where they can make a statement of intent and keep both Hamilton’s and the team’s championship chances alive.

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