Formula 1’s action-packed tricontinental triple-header in Mexico, Brazil and Qatar has been decisive, but in true F1 2021 style the script has been enthusiastically flipped and expectations smashed.
Having wrestled back the lead in October, Max Verstappen had what looked like a trio of Red Bull Racing-favouring circuits to set himself up with championship point for the December Saudi Arabia-Abu Dhabi finale. An emphatic victory in Mexico carried him along that path, and second in the Sao Paulo sprint blew out his advantage to 21 points.
Lewis Hamilton was down and out. His car had been controversially excluded from qualifying and sent to the back of the Saturday grid, and Mercedes was coming under fire for what Red Bull Racing has been forcefully suggesting is an illegal rear wing that unfairly boosts straight-line speed. His championship destiny seemed certain to be wrenched from his hands.
Yet just eight days later Hamilton has reasserted control, and after passing 24 cars in two days en route to victory in Brazil, in Qatar that same pace made him simply untouchable from pole.
An impressive almost half-second up on Verstappen in qualifying at the new-to-F1 Losail circuit, his race speed meant he was never challenged in banking 25 points for a remarkably easy victory, slashing his deficit to just eight points.
Instead of setting up Verstappen for triumph, this run of three races has swung the pendulum against him.
Hamilton has long had a habit of saving his best for last, keeping titles close before finally firing up and obliterating the opposition. But the seven-time champion’s rip-roaring performances in Brazil and Qatar have been on another plane altogether compared to his early-campaign form and his flurries of seasons past.
“They have woken up the lion on the Saturday at Interlagos,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff enthused, having turned his team’s difficult weekend with the stewards in Brazil into a galvanising motivator since. “I think when adversity happens it takes him to a place where he’s able to mobilise superhero powers.
“He’s absolutely on it, brutal and cold-blooded. This is the best in Lewis.”
Through the season til now Hamilton has worn the highs and lows of Mercedes’s relative competitiveness on his sleeve. There have been times when he’s appeared more bruised by defeat than Verstappen, who has steadfastly maintained that winning or losing the title won’t change his life.
But there’s been a clear renewed steeliness in Hamilton as the championship has entered its final quarter, and since Mexico the weight of the fight has been replaced by only a calm determination that he can be the difference between triumph and defeat.
“It’s a great feeling, but there’s no time to celebrate, there’s no time to rest,” Hamilton said in Qatar. “We keep our head down and we keep chasing.”
After seven years of being hunted, you get the sense that Hamilton is finally enjoying the pursuit, and with his car at last in a sweet spot and with a pair of potentially Mercedes-favouring circuits to close the season, he has every reason to feel optimistic that he’s been able to use the triple-header to turn the tide in his favour.
How will Red Bull Racing respond? Team boss Christian Horner has continued to accuse Mercedes of wrongdoing and to stoke the flames of his fractious rivalry with Wolff, but without evidence for his claims and without a reaction from Toto his actions look increasingly like attempts to deflect from his team’s late-campaign difficulties.
And with Hamilton in such sparkling form, it’s hard not to see Horner’s behaviour as a tacit admission that even he now sees the Briton as favourite to claim this most sought-after world championship.