Formula 1 returns from its three-week summer sojourn this weekend for the classic Belgian Grand Prix with a red-hot title race and a bucketload of questions to be decided in the sprint to the finish.
The sport adjourned for its annual break delicately poised. After a chaotic race in Budapest Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes regained advantages in the drivers and constructors championships over Max Verstappen and Red Bull Racing. The Briton leads the Dutchman by just eight points, while the German marque heads the Austrian outfit by 12.
Just weeks before the suspension it seemed fanciful to think Hamilton could level with Verstappen after a drubbing at the double-header in Austria, but two disastrous first-lap crashes in the UK and Hungary left the Dutchman with just five points to the Briton’s 45, resetting the balance.
But while momentum on the title table has swung wildly towards the reigning champion, the battle on the track has not, and Red Bull Racing’s car is at least a match for the Mercedes machine.
And the title challenger intends to keep developing the RB16B too despite next season’s all-new regulations compelling every other team, including Mercedes, to switch focus to 2022. Red Bull Racing hasn’t contended for a championship since 2013 and is determined to seal the deal while it can.
But the car is only part of the equation; the men in them are a crucial second component. In Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen each has a world-leading driver to dependably deliver, notwithstanding the simmering tension between them since their crash in Silverstone.
Their teammates, however, are every bit as important, but both are struggling in the breakneck pace set by the campaign leaders languishing more than 80 points adrift and behind Lando Norris in the inferior McLaren.
Both have their excuses.
Perez is new to the team and has been incrementally improving, including victory in Azerbaijan, but has fallen into a form slump in the three rounds to the break. A return to relative competitiveness from Belgium should be enough to earn him a consolidating sophomore season.
Bottas, on the other hand, in his fifth year with the team has his more consistent podium-getting drives weighed heavily against some high-profile blots in his copybook.
A crash in Imola while battling for ninth, a deeply uncompetitive non-points finish in Baku and his triggering of the first-lap pile-up in Budapest have him as the man under pressure.
It may be too late to keep himself in a title-winning Mercedes. Team boss Toto Wolff said he intended to make a decision on the out-of-contract Bottas during the break, with junior driver George Russell champing at the bit for promotion after a three-year apprenticeship at Williams. No announcement has been made at the time of writing, but the feeling in Budapest was that change was in the forecast.
Would Bottas continue to play the role of the loyal second-in-command if he’s cut loose, or would the pressure to bolster his bargaining power in negotiations with backmarkers, the only teams left with vacancies, be his primary motivation? His decision could materially affect Hamilton’s chances of taking the title to the wire.
And how we get to the wire is a great unknown. The cancellation of the Japanese Grand Prix has thrown the tightly packed 12-race, 15-weekend fixture into disarray, and replacement races will not only challenge teams to adapt on short notice, but they will also alter the balance of performance, potentially favouring the strengths of one team’s car over the other.
The 2021 Formula 1 season has already delivered a classic 11 rounds of a heavyweight title fight. What the championship has in store this weekend at Spa-Francorchamps and beyond is anyone’s guess.