MEDLAND: Might we finally have a fight on our hands?

Image by Bloxham/LAT

MEDLAND: Might we finally have a fight on our hands?

Insights & Analysis

MEDLAND: Might we finally have a fight on our hands?

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You watched the German Grand Prix, right? Please, tell me you did.

If you didn’t, I’m not sure highlights can be anything other than the full race. (OK, perhaps you can skip a few of the laps after the first Safety Car). And if you did watch it, you’ve probably only just about recovered from that emotional rollercoaster. It was draining.

There was just so much happening that what I’m about to do feels unfair. I’m going to raise a question based on cold, hard numbers gathered from the final results at the checkered flag.

Over the past three races, Max Verstappen has picked up 62 points. In that same time, championship leader Lewis Hamilton has 38, Valtteri Bottas and Charles Leclerc 33, and Sebastian Vettel 30.

Keep in mind that if it wasn’t for Vettel’s misjudgment at Silverstone then Verstappen’s tally would read at least 67 points. Regardless, it’s an impressive return as the mid-season break approaches.

He’s still 63 points adrift of Hamilton so would need to keep that sort of scoring ratio going for basically the rest of the season, but could Verstappen plant a seed of doubt into the championship leader’s mind?

As Red Bull’s improvement continues, Verstappen has clearly emerged as the biggest threat to Mercedes, and Ferrari’s pace at certain tracks shows the potential for bigger swings in points. At two of the last three races, Mercedes has looked if not vulnerable, then certainly beatable, to both teams.

OK, it’s massively unlikely based on what has gone before and the Mercedes pace at many venues. But much like I can’t just use the results from the past three races to make an argument, you can’t overlook the impact of something that the standings don’t show: pressure.

Mercedes was operating at such a high level earlier in this season. It marched through an almost mistake-free opening to the campaign with five straight one-two finishes, while Ferrari – the expected big rival in 2019 – tripped over itself.

The latter continues to happen. Regardless of Vettel’s brilliant drive on Sunday at Hockenheim, if the team and drivers got everything right it could have locked out the front row. Instead, Leclerc and Vettel started from 10th and 20th respectively. The final smile on Vettel’s face cannot distract from what was ultimately a massive opportunity missed.

But Verstappen is taking them. He has got everything out of his car at almost every race this season, with only Canada as springing to mind as a less than impressive weekend. And he still took home fifth – about as high as the car could realistically finish there – at the end of it.

Verstappen has been taking his chances – and reaping the rewards. Image by Bloxham/LAT

Since then, there appears to have been a real step forward with the Red Bull. Honda introduced an upgrade that didn’t show immediate progress at Paul Ricard, but in Austria, Great Britain and Germany both the car and power unit have been far more competitive.

This weekend’s Hungarian Grand Prix at the Hungaroring should provide another venue that is relatively good for Red Bull. Mercedes’ low speed performance was evident in Monaco where it secured first and second on the grid – and by some margin – but this is a stronger RB15 and it should not be forgotten how competitive Verstappen was in race trim in Monte Carlo.

And at the same time, that incredible level of Mercedes team performance has dropped off slightly. If Verstappen can take another win in Budapest and make it three out of four, could it be game on?

Yes, I’m clutching at straws, but a title battle is something this season really needs. We’ve had three great races, but Silverstone lacked an edge because Hamilton was extending a comfortable championship lead. Similarly, Hamilton’s extremely rare errors in Germany were massive in the context of that race, but it’s hard to imagine them having much bearing on the championship.

Still, there are plenty of other fights going on, and one of them is very much on Guenther Steiner’s hands.

At things at breaking point in the Haas garage? Image by Hone/LAT

Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen appear incapable of avoiding each other at the moment, and it’s really costing Haas. In Spain, the way the pair raced each other late on turned what looked like being seventh and eighth – regardless of the order – into seventh and 10th. It was a sign of what was to come.

Such have been the team’s struggles this year that it needs all the track running it can get to try and work out ways of extracting the performance that is clearly hidden somewhere within the car. Silverstone was billed as a significant test, with Grosjean reverting back to the Australia-spec car, but the pair only made it as far as Turn 5 before colliding. Steiner was livid.

In fact, Steiner was so angry he made a point of letting everyone know he still wasn’t over the incident when the team arrived in Germany, and that he would be talking to the drivers ahead of the weekend. Magnussen himself admitted he had never seen Steiner react in such a way, and that the air really needed clearing.

So for the two to come together in the race yet again, with the dressing down from their boss still ringing in their ears, is massively concerning for Steiner.

The team principal appears to have lost control of his drivers and is going to need to take drastic action. Steiner has already said he may stop them racing each other altogether and just call it from the pit wall, but that can only work if the drivers actually listen to him, and right now there’s little reason for him to have confidence that they will.

It all stems from a lack of trust between the drivers no: neither believes that the other will play by the rules, and therefore won’t do so themselves. But if they don’t start responding quickly to Steiner’s requests, the outcome might be more severe than just team orders.

A Verstappen win in Hungary could open up the possibility of a title fight leading into the summer break – but another Haas incident leading into the shutdown could be terminal for at least one member of the current line-up.

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