21 races down, one to go, and the 2021 Formula 1 season is going to go down to the wire.
Let that sink in for a minute. No, not the fact that it is going down to the wire, but the fact it is doing so after more races than any other season in Formula 1 history.
Scrolling through comment sections and social media replies paints a very divided picture when it comes to supporting one driver or the other. In the States it looks a little more balanced, but in general it seems to be you’re either vociferously for Lewis Hamilton and despise Max Verstappen, or the other way round. There’s no middle ground.
So even if the driver wars have already long-since kicked off following the events in Jeddah, let’s just take a moment to appreciate what both have done before one is crowned champion and the other has to make do with an epic runner-up spot, because they have both been faced with perhaps the most complete test the sport has ever served up.
Even if we ignore the restrictions placed on the teams and drivers due to COVID-19, the sporting challenge has been massive. Just three days of pre-season testing meant very little track time for all of the drivers before the first race, getting to grips with cars that would clearly handle differently to their predecessors following changes to the floor.
But from the word go, Hamilton and Verstappen were on it. They went wheel-to-wheel in Bahrain, and again in Imola, then in Portimao… oh, and again in Barcelona. It was thrilling stuff.
Monaco was back on the calendar, and was the first race where either of them really stumbled at as Hamilton ended up seventh. But it was back to drama in Baku with Verstappen’s tire failure and Hamilton’s subsequent brake bias error that resulted in potential wins slipping away for both.
A double header in Austria was the first anomaly compared to a “normal” season, but that was planned in response to COVID. What was just a completely new challenge for everyone to face was the introduction of the Sprint, which asked drivers to give it everything on a qualifying lap after just one hour of practice.
The first two came at Silverstone and Monza, and Hamilton and Verstappen collided at both. With a new venue at Zandvoort in between thrown in for good measure, the European summer was already a spell of high tension, and we still had the Americas swing and Middle East finish to come.
There had already been two tripleheaders, but the final one that took in Mexico, Brazil and Qatar created immense drama, as the season started building to one hell of a crescendo.
If you’re anything like me, the anticipation you’re feeling for Abu Dhabi is enormous. But I’m struggling to imagine what could happen next that could top what has gone before in terms of controversy and suspense. Maybe it was the mental stress of the previous tripleheader, or of the the slightly chaotic scenes in Jeddah simply to put a race on, but it felt like the lid almost came off on Sunday.
Qatar was a new challenge but more of a known quantity in terms of being an existing track, whereas Saudi Arabia was a complete step into the unknown as we showed up to find an facility that was still far from finished, even if the track itself was just about ready to go.
And despite all of those curveballs, all of the power unit penalties, controversial run-ins, investigations and penalties, the two protagonists have not given each other an inch.
369.5 points apiece. Even a decimal point for good measure thanks to a race that wasn’t a race at Spa. Wet races, wet/dry races, dry/wet races (sorry, Lando), grid restarts with two laps to go, and the past seven races have seen them finish first and second in one order or the other on no fewer than six occasions.
The past five rounds have all been led home by this pair, with Hamilton’s maximum points haul in Saudi the first time he has managed to take the full 26 on offer all season. It’s a sign of just how sensationally both have been performing that when one wins, the other is always right there to limit their gain in the runner-up spot. What’s more remarkable is it has come amid so much action on the track and tension off it.
For Verstappen, it comes as he chases a first world title that would represent the end of the era of Mercedes dominance. It’s already over, given what Red Bull has produced this year, but the record books could show another consecutive Merc title and continue the run of success. The team has been longing to be in a championship fight once again, and Honda has thrown everything at it for its last chance of success before leaving the sport, too.
Whether he’s let it get to him a little is up for debate. With a squeaky-clean license after Zandvoort, he has picked up seven penalty points since Monza and on Saturday hit the wall when set for pole position. But his approach hasn’t changed, and he was sublime in Austin and Mexico before still fighting for everything and ending up second in the last three.
In Hamilton’s case, a record-breaking eighth championship awaits, and it’s tough to describe Verstappen as anything but his most difficult opponent yet. Not only for the way he races, or the supreme talent that makes the Dutchman look destined for greatness, but the full might of Red Bull is behind him and desperate to finally end Mercedes’ run.
Inevitably, the pair are going to be defined as a winner and a loser come Sunday night, but in reality this was a season with two winners. Don’t let any comments section mislead you: We’ve seen two of the very best give it absolutely everything they’ve got — both within the rules and outside them at times — in response to the challenge the other has put up.
You’ll be hard-pushed to find a more deserving champion in history than the one we get this year, whoever it is, based on the challenges this season has provided, and more importantly the caliber of opponent they’ll have beaten.