Formula One finale pits one of the greatest drivers against a prodigy


Morio | Wikimedia Commons

Edgar Llivisupa, Sports Editor

Following the chaotic inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen are tied in the driver’s championship. The end of Formula One’s 2021 season, the most competitive in the turbo-hybrid-engine era, will fittingly come down to a winner-takes-all race.

Not only is the trophy at stake, but it is also a chance for Hamilton to become the greatest driver in the history of the sport or for Verstappen to finally live up to lofty expectations as a child prodigy.

In his most successful year driving the No. 3 Red Bull Honda, Verstappen had nine race wins, 17 podium finishes, nine poles and an average finish of 4.3. These include dominant performances in Mexico, Austria and France. Hamilton, with eight wins, was able to keep pace with a higher average finish of 3.5 due to Verstappen’s three DNF’s. This season has been so competitive that the championship lead was swapped five times.

While the drivers have stated an admiration and respect toward each other on track, this season has yet to prove that, especially at last week’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, as there were multiple incidents involving both drivers. On two restarts on lap 15 and 17, Verstappen drove aggressively into turn one to take the lead from Hamilton, forcing both to go off track. Then on lap 37, Verstappen slowed on the straight exiting turn 27 damaging Hamilton’s front wing to give the position back to avoid a penalty. Hamilton would win the race after passing Verstappen on lap 43, with both drivers tied in points.

On the surface, this championship would mean little for Hamilton, driver of the No. 44 Mercedes. He is the most successful driver in the sport’s history, tied with Germany’s Michael Schumacher for the most championships and has the most grand prix victories. While additional trophies may look like padding, and even though he prevailed in previous championship duels against Germany’s Sebastian Vettel and Spain’s Fernando Alonso, this season may have been the toughest for Hamilton as Verstappen had a career year.

A Verstappen championship would crown the child prodigy that many expected would have an illustrious career when he entered the sport as the youngest driver at age 17. He holds many age-related achievements, such as the youngest driver to score a podium finish, lead a lap, score the fastest lap and win a race. However, now at age 24, he could not be the youngest driver to win the driver’s championship, with Vettel accomplishing that feat at age 23.

His talents were slightly hampered by his perceived aggressive and unsportsman-like driving style. As well as last weekend’s race, he drove into former teammate Daniel Riccardo at the 2017 Hungary Grand Prix and crashed into championship-leader Vettel at the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix.

A Red Bull driver winning the championship could also be a preview for next season when new technical regulations are introduced to increase competitiveness and parity. Since the introduction of the turbo-hybrid engine in 2014, Mercedes has won 70% of races and the past seven constructor championships. Its drivers also won the past seven driver’s championships with Hamilton winning six of his seven championships and 80 of his 102 wins.

Detractors believe that the dominant Mercedes car provided Hamilton an opportunity to achieve these feats. If the new rules work as intended more teams and drivers could contend, Hamilton and Mercedes won’t achieve success as easily.

Looking at this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, last year’s result suggests that Verstappen will be favored after winning last year’s race from pole position. Yet Yas Marina Circuit was modified to allow for faster lap times. The chicane to lower a car’s velocity in turns 5 and 6 will be removed, turns 7 and 20 widened and a banked curve will replace turns 11-14.

Historically, this track layout favored Mercedes and Hamilton, although given this season’s wildness, race fans are in for a spectacle.