There was a moment after the Austrian Grand Prix this July where Lewis Hamilton just couldn’t catch a break. Having trailed behind title rival Max Verstappen in each of the past two grands prix, Hamilton had hoped to jump the Dutchman at the Red Bull Ring and force his way back into title contention.
But damage to his car – and an evident lack of grunt in his Mercedes – forced Hamilton to settle for a fourth-place finish he should have been grateful for, so far behind was he from his Red Bull target.
At that stage of the season, nine races into what is already shaping up to be a classic one-on-one championship battle, Hamilton was 32 points behind Verstappen.
But you can never write off the seven-time world champion.
Within two races Hamilton, thanks to sheer grit, some help from Valtteri Bottas and a stroke of good fortune, has turned the tables on Verstappen. It is the master who now holds a six-point lead on the apprentice, the reigning champion imposing his dominance on a sport that has been his for so long.
We enter Formula One’s summer hiatus with the season offering far more excitement than was predicted back in February, when it became apparent that the spending cap and raft of rules changes coming in 2022 had caused teams to focus their recourses on next year, rather than this.
Mercedes, and Hamilton in particular, were expected to stroll away with the title as they did in 2020. But Red Bull have found the gains they need to get back at the Silver Arrows and fans have been treated to a dramatic campaign as a result.
Further down the order veterans Fernando Alonso, Daniel Ricciardo, Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel have endured mixed fortunes so far, while the Ferraris are still way off the pace their reputation (and budget) demands.
The next race is not for a few weeks, with Spa on the horizon come late August. The iconic circuit has flipped between Mercedes and Ferrari champions for the past six years, with Red Bull not competing properly since the Vettel/Ricciardo days.
Belgian Grand Prix 2021
- Race date: Sunday 29 August
- Circuit: Spa-Francorchamps
- Start time: 2pm (BST)
- Last year’s winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
- TV channel: Sky Sports F1 (from 12.30pm)
- Live stream: Sky Go or Now TV
Hamilton has time to rest up after his revelation that he is suffering from long Covid, while Verstappen will likely be doing plenty of homework in an attempt to regain the championship lead sharpish.
Here, i looks at the five things we’ve learned from the 2021 season so far…
© Provided by The i Ferrari have endured a tough 2021 season (Photo: Getty)
Ferrari true to their word
Back in February Ferrari’s car and team launches were given the correct amount of razzmatazz required to stoke up energy from the team’s fans heading into a new season. Perhaps this would be the year Ferrari, with Carlos Sainz Jr replacing the battle-worn Vettel, would meet Mercedes’ challenge.
It wasn’t to be. In fact, even in their launch video Ferrari appeared to concede that 2021 wouldn’t be much of a year for them, and that the focus was already on 2022.
They’ve proved themselves right. Leclerc and Sainz sit sixth and seventh in the Drivers’ Championship respectively, and boast just three podiums between them. A failure from qualifying through to the chequered flag to truly contest for podiums is frustrating for an iconic team that so desperately craves success.
Will 2022 be different? For the good of the sport let’s hope so. But the remainder of this season is unlikely to offer much in terms of top-three spots for the Prancing Horse.
Remaining 2021 races
- 29 August – Belgium (Spa)
- 5 September – Netherlands (Zandvoort)
- 12 September – Italy (Monza)
- 26 September – Russia (Sochi)
- 3 October – Turkey (Istanbul Park)
- 10 October – Japan (Suzuka)
- 24 October – USA (Austin)
- 31 October – Mexico (Mexico City)
- 7 November – Brazil (Sao Paulo)
- 21 November – ? (Australia cancelled)
- 5 December – Saudi Arabia (Jeddah)
- 12 December – Abu Dhabi (Abu Dhabi)
Hamilton’s long Covid
It is a testament to the strength of the man that Hamilton leads the Drivers’ Championship despite the rigours this season is having on a body that was infected with coronavirus late last year.
© Provided by The i Lewis Hamilton (right) has been suffering the effects of long Covid (Photo: AFP)
Hamilton clearly isn’t over the virus’ after-effects, as evidenced in his blurred vision and dizziness on the podium in Hungary.
How it will affect the rest of his season remains to be seen, but the British driver has certainly not let it show on the track. He has been at his competitive best this term – fuelled by Verstappen’s rise – and isn’t afraid to be critical of himself and his team.
It’s the first time since 2016 that Hamilton has a true rival to the title. Verstappen’s spree of four wins from five between Monte Carlo and Austria has lit up the championship battle, only for Hamilton to respond. How revitalising it has been to finally have a serious contest.
Verstappen must dig in
Red Bull have proved over the course of the current season that they have a car to match and even better the Mercedes. They kicked on during the winter and in testing where Ferrari didn’t, and Verstappen is reaping the rewards.
Of the 11 races to date, Verstappen has placed first or second in eight of them. He has twice failed to finish – arguably not his fault on both occasions – and even his ninth-place result in Hungary was down to a mess created by Bottas and Lando Norris.
But as the British Grand Prix showed, Hamilton will fight for what he believes is rightfully his. That contact at Silverstone, which sent Max into the tyre wall, only stokes the flames of a rivalry lit last year.
© Provided by The i Max Verstappen will have to scrap to grab the title off Hamilton (Photo: AP)
Like Michael Schumacher in his pomp, Hamilton will play dirty if he needs to. Don’t be surprised to see more contact as the season plays out.
The Max vs Lewis battle in Portimao was a magnificent display of how the Dutchman can outwit his rival… and how Hamilton can just as easily come back. Verstappen himself nudged Hamilton at the start at Imola, so perhaps he knows the darks arts are crucial to winning the title here.
Alonso’s still got it
Fernando Alonso’s return to Formula One was greeted with plenty of cheer from the sport’s diehard fans, and he insisted his presence at Alpine was not to simply join the parade.
He is almost certain to stay with the team into next season after an impressive opening half of this year. Since struggling in Spain and Monte Carlo, Alonso has dug deep to post points finishes in each of the last six grands prix. His stellar fourth place in Hungary – where he held up Hamilton just enough to give team-mate Esteban Ocon a clear run to victory – was vintage racing.
The ambition is clearly still there for the Spaniard. Speaking after a P6 finish in Azerbaijan, Alonso told his team: “Look, we’re going to push, if there’s a gap, I’ll get in there. If we lose any points or we get into the wall or we lose our front wing… it’s going to be terrible, but at least let’s try.”
He certainly has done that.
© Provided by The i Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon (right) have impressed at Alpine (Photo: Reuters)
Perez failing to protect
The last three championship dynasties in F1 – Schumacher’s, Sebastian Vettel’s and Hamilton’s – have all relied on a dependable second driver to pinch podium spots ahead of rivals.
For years Valtteri Bottas has done this for Hamilton, who wasn’t too happy with how the 2016 battle with team-mate Nico Rosberg played out.
Verstappen needs his No 2 to knock points off Lewis. And Sergio Perez just hasn’t done this. The Mexican may have won the Azerbaijan but on only one other occasion – in Monaco – has he pipped Hamilton and harmed the Brit’s points total.
That’s not enough for Verstappen in the long run. Bottas may have struggled to protect Hamilton from the Dutchman, but at least he is getting in the podium spots. He is the ideal support act that Red Bull are currently missing.
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