Nearly a month has passed since the chaos of the Hungarian Grand Prix, but few in F1 have cooled off. Indeed, the heat and intensity of the tightest title duel in years will return once the lights go out at Spa this Sunday with Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen set to lock horns again after the summer break.
Verstappen has had a long time to stew since his last race ended in the opening lap at the Hungaroring. There was nothing the Dutchman could have done to avoid Lando Norris, who was shunted by a careless Valtteri Bottas, at Turn One, only adding to the sense of frustration that is building in the Red Bull garage.
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This came just two weeks after Verstappen’s British Grand Prix ended in the opening lap after a collision with Hamilton. Back-to-back DNFs have seen the 23-year-old concede his lead at the top of the drivers’ championship, a championship that looked destined to be his after three consecutive race victories in France and Austria.
“It’s a lot of freak moments at the moment that cost us a lot of points,” Verstappen said ahead of this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix. “They are of course very quick, but we never give up.” Verstappen has never won at Spa before – Red Bull haven’t had a winner at the Belgian Grand Prix since Daniel Ricciardo in 2014 – but will have a lot of home support from the Benelux natives.
The momentum has certainly shifted since Verstappen’s Austrian Grand Prix victory gave him a 32-point lead over Hamilton. Now, the seven-time world champion holds an eight-point advantage at the top of the standings with Mercedes making significant improvements to their car since the start of the season.
Indeed, the upgrade package Mercedes introduced ahead of the British Grand Prix appears to have made up some of the difference on Red Bull. Bottas and Hamilton have been able to go toe-to-toe (or wheel-to-wheel as was the case at Silverstone) with Verstappen and Sergio Perez who only two months ago looked to have the most rounded and fastest car on the grid.
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“It’s definitely been a hard slog for us,” Hamilton said after his second-place finish in Hungary. “Those guys with their update, they had I think a combination of things but they took a really good step once we got to the midpoint. Monaco onwards was intense, but the upgrade really has worked and then we’ve just been working on our procedure through the weekend and trying to extract more from the car and I think now we’re a lot closer.”
All this is good news for Bottas who, over the next few races, must prove he deserves to keep his seat at Mercedes for 2021. The Finn is out of contract at the end of the year with Williams’ George Russell widely tipped to replace him. While Bottas was at fault for a crash that wiped out a number of drivers in Hungary, Russell claimed his first points as a Williams driver.
We're all with you, @GeorgeRussell63! 🥺
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Bottas isn’t the only driver at the front of the pack who needs a strong second half of the season. While Perez has been an upgrade on Alex Albon, the Mexican has yet to truly repay Christian Horner’s faith in putting him in Red Bull’s second seat for 2021. Perez must improve his qualifying performances if Red Bull are to win the constructors’ championship for the first time since 2013.
Esteban Ocon benefited greatly from the chaos that unfolded at the Hungaroring, claiming his maiden F1 race victory in an Alpine car that has the straight-line speed to deliver podiums – see Fernando Alonso’s fourth-place finish in the same race. This result came at the perfect time for the Frenchman who until the Hungarian Grand Prix had faced some questions over his performances this season.
Norris will be keen to resume a trajectory that put him closest to the standard being set by Hamilton and Verstappen. The McLaren driver is still sitting in third place in the drivers’ championship but now has Bottas five points behind him after being taken out by the Finn at Turn One of the Hungaroring.
After a positive fifth-place finish at Silverstone, Ricciardo once again struggled at the Hungarian Grand Prix, finishing a lowly 11th. The Australian has shown glimpses of his natural speed in the McLaren this season, but is still struggling with some aspects of the car. The consistency of his teammate, Norris, isn’t helping matters for Ricciardo.
The summer break came at the wrong time for Ferrari who had started to build some momentum before the season split for four weeks. Charles Leclerc finished second at Silverstone having led for much of the race before Carlos Sainz finished on the podium at the Hungaroring. There are some signs of encouragement for the Scuderia.
Sebastian Vettel produced Aston Martin’s best result of the season by finishing second in Hungary only to be disqualified after the race due to a violation of fuel regulations. Nonetheless, the four-time world champion is improving all the time in his new car after a challenging start to the 2021 season. Vettel could be a podium threat in Spa, a circuit he won as recently as 2018.
While there are plot lines to follow all the way down the grid, the season half of the season will be dominated by the duel between Hamilton and Verstappen. Not since Nico Rosberg won the world championship in 2016 has Hamilton had a rival so close to his own level, with Verstappen just as confident in his own abilities as the German was five years ago.
Unlike in 2016, when Rosberg was Hamilton’s teammate, the rivalry between two ambitious teams in Mercedes and Red Bull has added another dimension to the title race. There is real tension between the two garages and that has manifested itself in drama on the track. Every race between now and the end of the season will count for something.