For Lewis Hamilton the 2021 Formula One title race has been like no other. As it enters the final decisive phase, the world champion is in position to pull off perhaps the greatest achievement of his career. His fight with Max Verstappen has been an unmissable affair, but what has caught the eye is how Hamilton has fought to drag this mighty tussle into an enthralling endgame.
Two races remain, with the first 20 yielding no clear advantage for either driver. A season that has ebbed and flowed between them, punctuated by brilliance, bad luck, conflict and drama, has seen the lead change hands five times.
With Saudi Arabia next weekend and Abu Dhabi to come seven days later, Verstappen leads by eight points: 52 remain on the table but Hamilton is on a roll and may now have the edge as he strives for a record eighth drivers’ title.
Verstappen can wrap it up in Saudi Arabia. He will be champion if he wins and takes fastest lap and Hamilton finishes sixth or lower or if he wins and Hamilton finishes lower than seventh. More realistically, short of a DNF, Hamilton will almost certainly be either in front of Verstappen or close enough to force the contest to the wire.
He has not reached this point with ease. The 36-year-old has this season shown the maturity and judgment of a great champion, with the determination of a thoroughbred and a work ethic that is often overlooked.
Verstappen’s Red Bull has been, on balance, the better car and that has required the Briton to deliver in every aspect of his craft. The 24-year‑old Dutchman is uncompromising. He will not back off, has the certainty, the conviction of youth and feels he has nothing to lose in this, his first title fight.
Early in the season, Hamilton chose to give Verstappen his head. At Imola and Barcelona he backed away from aggressive moves in order to avoid a potentially race-ending crash. His assessment of it was instructive and perhaps a little barbed. “I am not too big or too successful to have to back out to fight another day,” he said last week. “I know that is sometimes the route you have to take. You have to be the smarter one.”
Hamilton, though, has adapted as the season progressed. With Verstappen scoring heavily in the first half, the world champion realised he could no longer simply play the percentages. “There has been a need to gain points and you have to get a little bit less willing to give up too much,” he said.
Hamilton accepted he must match the unyielding Verstappen and at Silverstone and Monza the pair clashed on the track. Hamilton was adjudged at fault in Britain and Verstappen in Italy. But, crucially, Hamilton had made his point: Verstappen could not expect him to give way. Now Verstappen had to consider the percentages, too, in the knowledge that his opponent was unafraid to back down. There would be no psychological advantage.
Much of this opening half of the season also took a physical toll. Hamilton revealed in Hungary, after a monumental race where he came from last place to claim second, that he was still feeling the effects of long Covid. Having contracted the virus toward the end of the 2020 season, he suffered from fatigue and dizziness. It was unheard of for a driver still dedicated to staying in top physical form and Hamilton confirmed he had been battling ill-health all year.
“The first half of the season was one of the toughest that I’ve had,” he said, before confirming the underlying symptoms have now passed. “I feel better than I’ve felt in a long time. So somehow I’ve managed to push through it.”
In other seasons Hamilton enjoyed such superiority that he could have battled through and shrugged off such an impediment, but this year the margins are so fine it must have played a part.
Yet it paled in comparison to the single challenge that has defined the season and its climax. Hamilton believes the new rules were meant to hold back the all-conquering Mercedes. Aerodynamic changes, ostensibly to slow the cars down, affected downforce more on cars with a low rake (the angle from rear to front) such as the Mercedes than on the high-rake Red Bulls.
Since testing Mercedes have called their car a “diva”: hard to set up, sometimes presenting a mystery as to why it would perform on certain tracks and not others, its sweet spot often infuriatingly elusive. Hamilton was left having to wrestle a recalcitrant beast. So he went back with the team and they applied themselves to solving the issues with ceaseless dedication. On every tiny detail Hamilton has worked with his engineers to find the solutions.
“Those are things that I’ve been applying more energy towards and being a lot harder with the team on,” he said. “Because we need every millisecond we can get, particularly at the places where we have been really quite a bit down. Just going into more detail everywhere.”
In Brazil they found it. Finally able to fully exploit the upgrades they had fitted at Silverstone, the car was exactly where Hamilton wanted it and he flew from 10th place – the result of penalties – to the win. A week later in Qatar it was once more on song, vindication of that relentless pursuit of improvement.
Admittedly Hamilton has a fresher engine than Verstappen and Red Bull still argue the rear wing Mercedes will probably use in Saudi Arabia is illegal and will protest.
It is impossible not to sense that Hamilton has timed his run to perfection. He is in peak form physically, utterly calm at this tensest of times, having brushed off any psychological challenge Verstappen presented, and his car may yet prove to be the diva that provides the final, triumphant bow in this drama. Whichever way it goes, this will be a performance not to be missed.