If Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes were in any doubt over the threat Red Bull would pose to their F1 supremacy in 2021, they can’t be now. Three successive race victories–two of which were converted from pole position–for Max Verstappen have made the Dutch driver the championship frontrunner with this weekend’s British Grand Prix arriving at a critical juncture in the season.
Another Verstappen victory at Silverstone on Sunday would provide yet more proof of a power shift at the top of the sport. Not only do Red Bull appear to finally have the car to win races on a consistent basis, but they also have the driver in Verstappen to take the fight to a rival as illustrious and experienced as Hamilton.
More than once last year, Hamilton bemoaned the lack of a true challenger to Mercedes as the Silver Arrows won 13 of 17 races. However, the seven-times world champion likely didn’t envisage that a new challenger would leave him in the dust in the manner Verstappen has in 2021.
“When a challenge comes up, I face it head on,” Hamilton responded when asked whether fighting Verstappen might be futile this year. “I have never run away from a fight. When we entered this season and we saw the challenge we had, it was like, ‘Game on, love this, this is what we live for.’ It has been exciting.”
Silverstone might have come at the right time for Hamilton. The 36-year-old is the most successful driver in British Grand Prix history having won it seven times before – Valtteri Bottas (70th Anniversary Grand Prix) and Sebastian Vettel (2018) are the only other F1 drivers to have won a race at Silverstone since 2013.
😱😱😱 Remember this one last year at Silverstone.
The wildest finish to a Grand Prix we've ever seen!pic.twitter.com/GVj7BH4qRA
— Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team (@MercedesAMGF1) July 13, 2021
A sold-out crowd of 140,000 fans will be in attendance on Sunday, but the biggest reason for optimism in the Mercedes garage is the upgrades package they have hinted is coming before the weekend. If, however, this still doesn’t get them any closer to Red Bull and their incredible straight-line speed, it could be time for Mercedes to turn their focus towards 2022.
🗣 "Having fans back will really make the difference at Silverstone and the British crowd love motorsport in general which means it is a special place to be." @Max33Verstappen ahead of the #BritishGP 🇬🇧 pic.twitter.com/kKTK3eHYSC
— Red Bull Racing Honda (@redbullracing) July 14, 2021
Verstappen isn’t the only driver Mercedes must worry about at Silverstone. McLaren have also been competitive over the first nine races of the season, with Lando Norris even passing Hamilton in the final few laps of the Austrian Grand Prix two weeks ago to finish on the podium ahead of the defending world champion.
Norris also out-qualified Hamilton and Bottas and has only finished outside the top five once in nine races in 2021. The 21-year-old has long been considered a star of the future, but is now finding the consistency in his performances to push him out of the midfield and into competing with the big two teams.
In contrast, Bottas has suffered a disappointing season so far. Questions around his future at Mercedes continue to swirl with many of the belief George Russell will take the Finn’s seat for 2022. However, Bottas enters the British Grand Prix on the back of his best race result of 2021 so far having finished second at the Red Bull Ring two weeks ago.
Bottas’ detractors will point out he only finished ahead of Hamilton due to Mercedes’ team orders to invert the drivers due to tyre degradation concerns, Nonetheless, Bottas must build on his positive result at the Austrian Grand Prix to prevent speculation over his future becoming overwhelming.
The 2021 British Grand Prix will be the first race to feature a Sprint Qualifying race on Saturday, adding a fresh dimension to the weekend. The FIA hopes the initiative will help generate more excitement and quell concerns that F1 has grown too predictable in the hybrid era, but nobody really knows what the outcome of the experiment will be.
Heading into a weekend at Silverstone that promises to be an unusual one with the format changes.
— Max Verstappen (@Max33Verstappen) July 14, 2021
Drivers will race for 17 laps without the requirement to pit. Three points will be awarded to the winner (two to second place, one to third place) with the hope that flat-out racing will increase the excitement of the weekend. Critics, though, anticipate a procession without pitting to offer any disruption.
There were positive signs for Ferrari at the Austrian Grand Prix last time out as Carlos Sainz finished fifth, but Silverstone has a reputation for high tyre wear and after the troubles of the French Grand Prix, when their two drivers finished 11th and 16th due to bad degradation, this could be a problem.
Alpine’s pace was strong at the Red Bull Arena, but this didn’t translate into points on the board on race day, even if Fernando Alonso did salvage a point with a late overtake of Russell. Esteban Ocon has been given a new chassis for Silverstone as Alpine continue to work out what’s causing the Frenchman, who hasn’t finished in the points in the last four races, trouble this season.
McLaren, who will be missing team chief executive Zak Brown after he tested positive for COVID-19, will want to see signs of progress from Daniel Ricciardo after a difficult start to life in the papaya orange. The Australian insists he is settling in at his new team after the move from Renault for 2021, but that has yet to show in his lap times – most recently, Ricciardo failed to qualify in the top 10 in Austria while teammate Norris was on the front row.
The dominant storyline, though, concerns the title race that is becoming more of a procession with every passing race. In the past, Hamilton has produced his best racing when pushed to his limits. Verstappen and Red Bull are certainly doing that right now, but the defending world champion might not have the car underneath to give him a chance.
Toto Wolff has played down the extent of the upgrades Mercedes have made for this weekend, but some reports suggest this is their final significant package of 2021. Hamilton and the team behind him are counting on the comforts of Silverstone, a track Mercedes know how to win on, to get their season back on track. If this doesn’t work, it’s unlikely anything else will.