Eight points is all that separates Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton at the top of the drivers’ championship with the 2021 Formula 1 season going down to the final two races. It was clear from the first race of the year that the two drivers would push each other and that has certainly proved to be the case with the most compelling title duel in a long time having been produced.
Hamilton’s title hopes were in the balance after Verstappen’s victory at the Mexican Grand Prix at the end of October, with the Dutchman opening up a 19-point lead over his rival at the top of the standings. However, the seven-times world champion hit back with victories in Brazil and Qatar to narrow the gap to just eight points.
At this point, it could even be argued that Hamilton has the momentum behind him. The first-ever Saudi Arabia Grand Prix will be a real test for Verstappen. The 24-year-old is mature beyond his tender years, but he will have to demonstrate composure and keep his cool to get the job done at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit.
"The exciting part is it's a really fast but narrow street circuit. It will be a unique spectacle."@craigslaterSky takes a first look at F1's newest venue – and hears from Michael Masi about the challenge of the track.#SkyF1 | #F1 | #SaudiArabianGP 🇸🇦 pic.twitter.com/Ve96U8stnn
— Sky Sports F1 (@SkySportsF1) December 1, 2021
It is expected that the high-speed circuit will suit Mercedes over Red Bull with the difference between the two teams in the constructors’ championship now just five points. A third straight victory for the Silver Arrows would see them build an advantage that could prove unassailable heading into the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, where the curtain will come down on the 2021 season.
“If I get the job done, I think it will, yes,” Hamilton recently responded when asked if winning an eighth world championship in 2021 would be his greatest achievement in the sport. “But also, no one has ever been able to fight for an eighth, aside from Michael. It is a new position, uncharted territory.”
“This is the best I have been able to give in a year, the training, the time balance that I have. I made every sacrifice I could this year. I don’t think I have left anything undone, so at this point of the year there are no regrets. I am proud of everything we have done.”
Verstappen can clinch the title at the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix if he wins the race, claims the fastest lap point and Hamilton finishes sixth or lower. There is no more margin for error, but Hamilton has the advantage of experience. The 36-year-old has been here before, whereas this is a new situation for Verstappen. That could count for something.
The tension between Hamilton and Verstappen, and Mercedes and Red Bull, has been palpable throughout the season with the two drivers coming to blows on the track more than once. Even as Hamilton won at Interlagos in mid-November, there was an incident many believed Verstappen should have been punished for as he seemingly forced his rival off the track.
“Max drives like Tyson Fury fights,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said. “He’s got that same heart. You just know he’s going to give it everything and if you knock him down, he’s going to get back up. He’s got that burning desire, that all-out commitment. I would put money on Max’s first flying lap in Saudi Arabia being the fastest of any driver.”
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 1, 2021
Mercedes need Valtteri Bottas to maintain his recent good form. Not just to put points on the board for the sake of the constructors’ championship, but to give Hamilton an ally at the front. Red Bull will be asking the same of Sergio Perez whose support and ability to compete for podiums has been a factor in Verstappen’s title challenge.
Bottas will race for the Silver Arrows for the second last time this weekend with the Finn already signed up as an Alfa Romeo driver for 2022. Speculation around his future over the summer appeared to affect Bottas, but he has won back some consistency since then. He deserves credit for how he has helped Mercedes fight for honours despite not sticking around beyond the end of the year.
While the duel at the front of the pack is the dominant headline going into the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix, there is still plenty at stake further down the grid. Ferrari and McLaren have been engaged in a scrap for third place in the constructors’ championship, although the Scuderia’s recent strong form might have pushed them ahead of their rivals. Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo must deliver a serious points haul in Saudi Arabia to stand any chance of catching Ferrari’s pair of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz.
— Scuderia Ferrari (@ScuderiaFerrari) December 2, 2021
Alpine and AlphaTauri are divided by just 25 points with fifth place in the constructors’ championship standings up for grabs. Pierre Gasly has 92 points of AlphaTauri’s 112 points this season, illustrating just how important he is to the team in a year when Yuki Tsunoda has struggled as a rookie.
Elsewhere, Aston Martin, Williams, Alfa Romeo and Haas are already looking ahead to 2022, although there would be an important symbolism to the sight of Williams finishing the season in eighth given where they were two years ago. George Russell will surely want to end his three-year stint with the team with a couple of strong performances.
Not for a long time has there been so much on the line heading into the final two races of the season. For context, Hamilton had his seventh world championship secured at the Turkish Grand Prix last year, four races from the end of the season. This time, both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships are going the distance.
If Verstappen can win in Saudi Arabia, he will stand on the brink of shaking up the established order at the top of F1. However, if Hamilton can make it three race victories in a row, the difference between the two drivers will stand at next to nothing heading to Abu Dhabi where the 2021 F1 season would be reduced to a straight shootout.