After 20 rounds of racing, Formula 1 has arrived at one of the most intense concluding chapters in its history.
Max Verstappen leads Lewis Hamilton by just eight points, and two final races in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi will decide which of these two titans will pen the final paragraph.
Verstappen has maintained an impressive coolness through his first title-contending campaign to start the decisive double-header ahead. He needs only one more victory to force Hamilton to rely on luck to stay in the fight. Destiny is within his grasp.
Hamilton, despite being the reigning titleholder, has been the underdog of 2021. His inconsistently competitive car has tested to the limit his personal creed, ‘Still I rise’, and that he continues to keep himself in championship contention is a credit to his season-long transcendence of his machinery.
After all, it was barely three weeks ago that Verstappen looked certain of success, having been 21 points up at the Brazilian Grand Prix with four races to go before Hamilton ignited his latest mighty comeback against the prevailing form.
Indeed it’s been such a forceful turnaround that Red Bull Racing considers it suspicious.
For weeks Red Bull Racing boss Christian Horner has been accusing Mercedes of fielding an illegal car, the W12’s ferocious straight-line speed the cause of his consternation. He found the Brazilian Grand Prix particularly alarming, with Hamilton starting from the back of the grid in the Saturday sprint and making 24 overtakes over two days on his way to victory over Verstappen.
The undercurrent of the final quarter of the season has been the Milton Keynes working theory that Mercedes has found a way to make its rear wing bend on the straights to reduce drag and boost velocity. The matter is personal: the RB16B performed a similar trick earlier in the year before the FIA outlawed flexible wings in June.
“I think everyone could see Brazil was not a normal situation,” Horner at the previous race in Qatar. “When you… witness marks on rear wing endplates that have been marking up from wings that have been flexing, it’s very clear to us what has been going on.”
But the marks, which Horner’s team identified from close-up photos, are ambiguous, and the Mercedes car has passed a string of recent FIA tests designed to identify illegal flexing. The German marquee is adamant its car is legal.
Horner tempered his criticism in Qatar, where his team’s defeat was more comprehensive than simply down the straights, but he has reserved the right to protest in Saudi Arabia if he’s unhappy about Mercedes’s performance.
And Saudi Arabia is all about straight-line speed. Billed as the fastest street circuit in F1, it will reward power and low drag rather than the downforce-demanding corners Red Bull Racing considers its own territory. If the protest is going to come, it will be there.
But after weeks of threats there’s a sense a protest may never come at all. Either the team has been unable to find evidence compelling enough to formalise its grievances or it has simply been attempting to destabilise Mercedes just as Hamilton strikes unbackable form. Given the acrimony between Horner and his Mercedes counterpart, Toto Wolff, it seems increasingly like an attempt at the latter.
And so Saudi Arabia this weekend feels a lot like a dress rehearsal for the big dance in Abu Dhabi. If Red Bull Racing can help Verstappen to victory, the Dutchman will be able to decide the fight in his favour.
But if Mercedes forges on unperturbed by speculation and unhindered by protest, Hamilton’s path to an unprecedented eighth world championship will be clear.
We’ll know the answer on Dec 12.