Does Max Verstappen Deserve to Be Favourite for the F1 Drivers’ Championship?
For what seems like a lifetime, it has been unthinkable to assume that Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton won’t land a Drivers’ and Constructors’ title double. After all, barring a single loss to Nico Rosberg, who then retired, the seven-time world champion has been unstoppable.
However, it's looking less likely that Hamilton will cruise to a record-breaking eighth championship in 2021 due to the emergence of Red Bull. Indeed, some people are wondering whether Max Verstappen should be seen as the driver to beat on the grid. They are right, and here’s why.
Consistency Is Key
Verstappen has shown with his comeback win in Italy that he isn’t about to let up now that he has the fastest car under him. Although the Dutchman should have taken the chequered flag in Bahrain, it was only a world-class drive from the reigning champ that got in his way, taking victory by 0.745 seconds.
Lots of people will point to this as evidence that Hamilton still deserves to be the favourite for the end-of-season honours in Abu Dhabi, and they are correct in some respects. However, the fact that the Red Bulls are quicker than the Mercedes means that their drivers will need to be at a high level consistently throughout the year.
Pole laps like in Bahrain are what Hamilton has got in his back pocket, yet even he will struggle to put his car on the edge without making a mistake. An unforced error at Imola while passing backmarkers cost him seven points in the standings, whereas Verstappen’s Red Bull was pretty flawless from start to finish.
A Double Threat
Probably the main issue for Hamilton and Mercedes is the demise of Valtteri Bottas. No one in Formula one enjoys watching the Finn struggle because he has been an incredibly reliable driver for Mercedes. Now that he isn’t on top form, and RB can’t quite find a capable number two, his performances are beginning to be recognised for what they were – outstanding.
Of course, F1 is a ruthless sport, and the extra pressure of George Russell gunning for his seat seems to be impacting him more and more each race. This isn’t only bad news for Bottas and Mercedes, but for Hamilton, too, because driving is as much about strategy as it is about talent. With two cars at the front of the grid, James Vowles and Toto Wolff can head off Red Bull pitstops, use a car to slow down a charging rival and provide the lead driver with breathing space.
At the moment, Sergio Perez and Max Verstappen look as if they are going to spearhead the front row, with Bottas languishing back in the midfield. The Finn’s F1 betting odds have been tweaked accordingly, now standing at 33/1. But Hamilton’s 8/11 favouritism could be affected too if his teammate leaves him to fight off his challengers, both of whom have superior performance in their cars.
Horses for Courses
The track layouts play a significant part in the race outcomes since teams set up their cars differently. Mercedes have won every championship since 2013, and in part, it's down to the rake of their car. Unfortunately for them and Aston Martin, new rules have been introduced that target the area.
The title fight is on 👊 but how have Red Bull reeled in Mercedes?
— Sky Sports F1 (@SkySportsF1) April 12, 2021
As a result, the Mercedes’ engine isn’t the most powerful on the grid, even though it’s strong enough to compete with Honda. The fact that Honda has added more juice not only means they are fewer miles-per-hour down on their rivals, but they’re also good in slow corners due to the car’s superior aerodynamics. This means there could be several venues that don’t suit Mercedes, including Imola and Portimao due to their high-speed nature, meaning Red Bull and Verstappen could eke out a lead early on in the campaign.
There's a long way to go, and Hamilton is deservedly the champion on paper due to his impeccable credentials. Still, there appears to be a lot more going in Red Bull’s favour this season, which brings the 11/10 second-favourite, Max Verstappen, into play.