MEDLAND: Time for the F1 title pressure to tell?

Mark Sutton/Motorsport Images

MEDLAND: Time for the F1 title pressure to tell?

Insights & Analysis

MEDLAND: Time for the F1 title pressure to tell?

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Take a deep breath, because the Formula 1 season might be about to enter a defining couple of weeks, and it’s all going to feel like it happens very quickly.

Five races in six weeks will end the longest campaign in the sport’s history, and it’s a brutal triple-header of consecutive race weekends kicking off this weekend in Mexico that really has the feeling that it might be decisive on many fronts.

From Mexico to Brazil and then on to Qatar, the teams are going to be stretched to their limits. And even the drivers will have to really work hard to be at their absolute best.

They might fly first class and have it far easier than those setting up the garage and pulling 16-hour days during the race weekend, but 12 hours from Europe to Mexico City, another 10 to Sao Paulo and then 15 to Doha — including the major timezone swings that includes — won’t go unnoticed.

And it’s not as if this is like recent seasons, either. Championships have regularly been wrapped up by this stage of the year — at least in date terms — or are all but mathematically done. But after 17 races, just 12 points separate the two main title protagonists in different teams, and those two teams are also only 23 points apart.

In a title race with razor-thin performance margins, every competitive moment is magnified. Andy Hone/Motorsport Images

The latter is a cracking battle, and closer than it may appear. A one-two for Red Bull in Mexico would almost guarantee it the championship lead, because the most Mercedes would be able to score in response is 23 points with third, fourth and the fastest lap. If Red Bull achieved the maximum score of 44 points with the fastest lap itself, then third and fourth would leave Mercedes with a lead of a single point.

But let’s be honest, what really gets people on the edge of their seats is Max Verstappen versus Lewis Hamilton for the drivers’ title. And right now, it’s hard to look past Verstappen.

I don’t write that last sentence lightly, because every time it feels like there’s a form book to follow and a favorite, something happens that turns it completely on its head.

The pace of the Red Bull in Belgium, Zandvoort and Monza, followed by Verstappen’s climb from the back of the grid to second in Russia, suggested the Dutchman was going to pull away. But then Turkey happened, where Mercedes — led by Valtteri Bottas — was so much quicker and it was game on again. And then Austin saw the defending champions struggling more than expected, with Verstappen winning a thriller that really could have gone either way.

But Verstappen so far hasn’t had a bad weekend. I’m not saying he hasn’t made mistakes, but he has finished either first or second in every single race except for Azerbaijan (where he retired after late puncture when leading), Silverstone (collision with Hamilton), Hungary (hit by Bottas) and Monza (collision with Hamilton). There has always been a clear incident to prevent another top two score.

For Hamilton, however, there was a tough weekend in Monaco where he only finished seventh, a restart error — unfortunate as it was — that dropped him out of the points in Baku when he would have won, damage picked up in Austria that dropped him to fourth, a third-place classification after being outqualified by George Russell in Belgium, and a recovery to fifth from 11th in Turkey.

Errors like Hamilton’s on Baku’s late restart loom all the larger in a close title race. Mark Sutton/Motorsport Images

They’re absolutely tiny margins, but Verstappen has put himself on the right side of them when it’s in his control. The question is, will he still be able to do so as the championship looms into view?

Hamilton has been here before. He has dealt with tense and dramatic title battles from his very first season in F1, and has experience of fighting both those inside his own team and those in another car. As calm and impressive as Verstappen has been for the majority of this season, he still is entering unknown territory.

But it won’t just be the drivers feeling the pressure in this fight — the teams will too. Red Bull hasn’t had a chance to win a championship since its dominant run from 2010-13, and with new regulations to come next year, there’s no guarantee it will still be in contention in 2022.

Mercedes, on the other hand, has experience of closing out championships and a winning mentality, but hasn’t had to do so without a comfortable performance advantage. And we’re now at the stage that both teams know one poor pit stop, one wrong setup decision, one bad strategy call, could cost their driver the title.

It’s a feeling that will be replicated up and down the grid, with McLaren coming under increasing pressure from Ferrari for third place, and Alpine and AlphaTauri only 10 points apart in the battle for fifth, too.

We’ve seen just how intense the fights can get, with Daniel Ricciardo’s defensive move against Carlos Sainz in Austin being branded “a bit dirty” as the Spaniard felt it was done on purpose, and when I put those comments to the McLaren driver he replied: “Oh yeah? That’s cool. I’m happy to be dirty. I’m a nice guy, so being dirty every now and then is all right!”

Ricciardo felt he had to be right on the limit because of Ferrari’s pace advantage and the constructors’ championship picture, and it’s not lost on these drivers when they’re fighting a direct rival in the standings, even if most of the focus appears to be on who’s going for titles.

One byproduct of such a big and backloaded calendar has been the feeling that there’s always so much racing left to go. As a result, each individual race hasn’t always seemed like it is season-defining on its own. But we’re definitely entering that part of the year.

Every race in a season is worth the same amount of points, and moments in the first races of the season can have as much influence as those in the final rounds; but it’s at this stage that you have all of the context and knowledge of what’s gone before. That just adds to the significance now.

To be so late in the year and with so many fights so close — including the biggest two — is brilliant for those of us watching. And it is too for those involved, as long as you’re not the one who screws it up…

 

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