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Middle East Races Could Prove Decisive For The Formula 1 2021 Title Battle

By Atakan Uzun 

 

The most intriguing Formula 1 season, for many years, is increasingly reaching its climax, which comes ahead of the eagerly anticipated change in regulations in 2022. For the 2021 season, there has been the reduction of downforce by up to ‘10%’ of downforce, compared to the dramatically shortened 2020 season, which has made lap times up to a second slower compared to last season. It has reshaped the grid for the benefit of entertainment and exhilarating action. Consequently, due to the teething problems of Mercedes, it has created a nail-biting title battle, between 7-time world champion, Lewis Hamilton, and Red Bull driver, Max Verstappen, who is looking for his first Formula 1 title. Throughout the season, it has ebbed and flowed between both drivers. After winning at the classic Barcelona circuit, despite close battles in previous races, Hamilton pulled a 14-point lead in the early stages of the championship. It appeared that whatever pressure, Verstappen was able to mount upon Hamilton, the F1 veteran was unflustered.

Figure 1: 2022 F1 car model. F1 (2021). 

Things were about to change in the subsequent races. Following uncharacteristic errors, throughout the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix weekend, Hamilton finished a lowly seventh, after a strategy attempting to undercut Alpha Tauri driver, Pierre Gasly failed. Amid this chaos for Hamilton, Verstappen took a win around the street circuit. This meant that Verstappen pulled a five-point lead ahead of Hamilton. The next race was yet another dramatic race in the title race. While Verstappen crashed out of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, after a tyre failure, Hamilton was unable to capitalise on this stroke of luck, after he accidentally pressed a magic mode setting on his Mercedes car, steering wheel, in the restart after Verstappen’s crash. Thus, Red Bull driver, Sergio Perez went on to win the race, ahead of Sebastian Vettel and Pierre Gasly. The points battle remained at 4 points in Verstappen’s favour. In the following three races, Verstappen pulled a 32-point lead ahead of Hamilton. It started to become increasingly likely that it was Verstappen’s title to lose. Then, came the historical and classical Silverstone circuit in England, which hosted the first-ever Formula 1 race in history. After Verstappen won the sprint qualifying, he held a 33-point lead. 

After maintaining the lead, going into the world-famous and blind Copse corner, at Turn 9, Hamilton was on the inside and Verstappen on the outside. Hamilton collided with Verstappen which ploughed him into the barriers. This opened significant rivalry between Red Bull and Mercedes, with both teams defending their respective drivers. Due to his part, in the collision, Hamilton received a 10-second time penalty. Hamilton still went to win the race, after passing Leclerc. This race win for Hamilton led to an 8-point gap in Verstappen’s favour. At the next race, Hamilton took the championship lead with an 8-point lead, after a turn-one collision, severely damaged Verstappen’s car. He went on to claim a ninth-place finish, while Hamilton took second place, after the disqualification of Vettel from second place. The points’ battle closed to three points after the next race, as drivers were awarded half-points, for their qualifying positions, at the Spa circuit in Belgium, due to the severity of the wet conditions. 

At his home circuit, Verstappen took charge of the points’ battle, as he won in front of his home fans, at the Zandvoort circuit. The title battle took an even bigger hit, at the Monza circuit in Italy. After a poor fifth-place finish, which became fourth in the sprint race, Hamilton was ever more incentivised to close the gap to Verstappen, who inherited pole position from the sprint race, due to Bottas’ engine penalty. After a better start, McLaren driver, Daniel Ricciardo overtook Verstappen, who maintained second place, while Hamilton was in fourth. At the first round of pit stops, due to new pit-stop rules that were introduced at the previous race, which phased out the traffic lights system, for the respective teams, Red Bull had a costly 10-second stop. It was an advantage for Hamilton. But after an average stop, Hamilton came out just ahead of Verstappen, at turn one, after overhauling Norris on the previous lap. Verstappen went on the outside of turn one, which became the inside, at turn two and crashed into the side of Hamilton. After this serious crash, the title battle was at 5 points. 

At the time of writing, it is getting close to the climax of the season and the Mexican Grand Prix in Mexico City is upon us. Following on from this race is the Sao Paulo Grand Prix, and the critical juncture of the season, with the races in the Middle East. While the Mexico City and Sao Paulo circuits are likely to play to the Red Bull’s strengths, due to the number of corners, in both circuits, particularly in the middle sectors of these respective circuits, the Middle East races, at the Losail, Jeddah and Abu Dhabi circuits, are likely to play to the Mercedes car strengths. Notably, the straight-line speed of the Mercedes car will be utilised at the long-straights in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, which have long-straights. It will take a brave person to predict who the champion will be, come the last race. From my impartial prediction, the next two races are likely to be crucial for Red Bull and Verstappen to win both races and pull a points-gap more than 25 points. They will be able to afford to finish on the podium in the last three races, which will play to the Mercedes car strengths. Let’s hope the entertaining title battle is likely to come down to the last corner of the last race at the Abu Dhabi circuit in UAE.