Two weeks ago, Max Verstappen seemingly had one hand on his first Formula One drivers championship trophy. Now, two races later, he’s watching it slip away.
The F1 traveling bazaar is in the home stretch: After buzzing around Europe all summer, the series recently kicked off a slate of six races in eight weeks in the Americas and Middle East. Verstappen started things off by winning the United States Grand Prix, holding off a charging Lewis Hamilton at a track the 36-year-old Englishman had traditionally made his own. (The all-time F1 scoreboard at Texas’s Circuit of the Americas reads “Hamilton 5, Everyone Else 4.”)
Two weeks later, Verstappen cruised to victory in Mexico City as Hamilton—whose Mercedes engine was gasping for power at high altitude—was fortunate just to stay ahead of Verstappen’s Red Bull teammate, Sergio Pérez. Parked inside the converted baseball stadium that makes up the final slow section of the track, Verstappen and Pérez were hoisted onto the shoulders of the team’s mechanics and waved Mexican flags at a frenzied pro–Red Bull crowd. It was front-of-the-championship DVD stuff for a team and driver in firm control of the title race.
The win at Mexico City was Verstappen’s ninth of the season. And with four races to go, and 25 and 18 points at stake for first- and second-place finishes, respectively, Verstappen’s 19-point lead looked impregnable unless one of two things happened: Verstappen made a calamitous mistake, or Hamilton ran the table. Two weeks later, Hamilton’s halfway to his miracle finish.
Mercedes has won the past seven F1 constructors championships, including six drivers championships and a close second-place finish for Hamilton himself. Since F1 introduced V6 turbo-hybrid engines in 2014, Mercedes has always had the strongest powertrain and, in Hamilton, the best driver. But after Mexico, Hamilton looked beaten. More than that, he looked old. In the post-race press conference, the BBC’s Andrew Benson asked Hamilton whether the next race, in Brazil, was a must-win.
“I naturally feel I need to be winning every race,” Hamilton said. “That was the goal going into the last race, and the race before that, and the race before that, and before that, and here this weekend. But [Red Bull is] just too quick. We’re giving it absolutely everything we’ve got, but unfortunately it’s not enough at the moment to compete with them.”
Hamilton, soft spoken but always blunt and self-critical off the track, seemed resigned to watch someone else take the crown for the first time since 2016. That year, Hamilton lost a nail-biting championship race to his teammate, Nico Rosberg—but he hasn’t been seriously challenged since. And in the ensuing four years, he’s tied or broken the all-time records for wins, pole positions, and championships. If Hamilton collects the drivers championship in two races’ time, it will give him sole possession of the record with eight. He’s already got a good case for being the best F1 driver of all time; with each win, and each title, it gets harder to make a case for anyone else. But with Verstappen on the rise and a new set of regulations threatening Mercedes’s dominance, Hamilton might not get another chance this good.
So Hamilton arrived in Brazil with a new internal combustion engine and a bug up his ass. He came into the weekend knowing he’d take a five-place grid penalty for the new engine (his fifth of the season). And after his rear wing failed a post-qualifying inspection—and after Verstappen incurred a $57,200 fine for wiggling said wing after the session—Hamilton stormed from 20th on the grid to fifth in just 24 laps in Saturday’s sprint race.
“Lewis, brilliant job … fuck them all,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff interjected over the radio.
That Sunday, Hamilton won the weekend’s main event. Once again he stormed through a crowded field, narrowly avoiding Verstappen along the way when the Dutchman neglected to turn his car as Hamilton attempted to pass him for the lead.
For the past five years, Hamilton has made his job look easy by leading from the front. But in Brazil, he won from further back than anyone ever had at Interlagos, a track where in 2008 he won his first championship with a pass in the rain on the last corner of the last lap of the last race of the season. Hamilton certainly had the fastest vehicle in the race, powered by the new engine in the back of his car. But F1 cars are so big and unwieldy, and so aerodynamically disruptive, that even faster cars and drivers—not least of them Hamilton in his Mercedes—struggle to work through traffic. Hamilton might be the greatest F1 driver who ever lived, and that might have been the greatest race of his career.
A week later, at Qatar’s Losail International Circuit, Hamilton qualified on pole by almost half a second. Then on Sunday, he led the field by the better part of two seconds after the first lap and cruised to an easy victory. After the race, far from the beleaguered figure he cut in Mexico, Hamilton looked downright peppy. He told former teammate Jenson Button—who now conducts post-race interviews for Sky Sports—that he felt fitter than ever, and that he looked forward to watching a replay of the race so he could see what went on behind him (so far back was Verstappen that the Red Bull barely registered in Hamilton’s mirrors).
Hamilton had to win out to retain the title, and he’s now halfway there. The 19-point deficit is down to eight, and if he wins in Saudi Arabia in two weeks and takes the bonus point for fastest lap, he’ll zero out the standings even if Verstappen finishes second.
Since his last real title fight, Hamilton’s been so staid, so serene and calculating, that it was easy to forget he had this in him. Other drivers have swashbuckled to charismatic performances because their inferior machinery demanded that they take risks. But Hamilton never had to—until Verstappen and Red Bull challenged him. Now, he’s gobbling up a car a lap, jabbing and needling at the erstwhile championship favorite, and jumping out of the car with a smile on his face and giant veins bugging out of his forehead. After seven titles and 102 wins, Hamilton has nothing to prove. But he’s driving like he has everything to prove.
It’s hard to make it to the top of any sport without developing a healthy ego, and nobody has a bigger Superman complex than someone who sticks his head out of a 200-mile-an-hour car for a living. F1 driver confidence is like jock confidence multiplied by fighter pilot confidence. So if there’s one consistent thread this season, it’s that both Verstappen and Hamilton claim not to feel the pressure of the title fight, no matter what the calendar or standings say.
But this is crunch time, in a sport that frequently crowns a champion with a month or more to go in the season. So while crunch time might only come along once every five years, everyone’s acutely aware how thin the margins are.
Hamilton’s disqualification in Brazil, for instance, stemmed from a few millimeters’ difference in flexibility based on how the carbon fiber in the tail of the car was woven together at the factory. When the race stewards declined to punish Verstappen for running Hamilton off the road, Mercedes spent the following week begging the FIA to take another look at the incident. And it’s not like one team is particularly litigious—earlier this year, Mercedes protested the legality of Red Bull’s aerodynamic surfaces on the same grounds, while Red Bull lobbied for Hamilton to be disqualified from the British Grand Prix after a similar incident between the two drivers put Verstappen in the wall.
Both Verstappen and Hamilton are smart enough to know that sniping at each other publicly can be counterproductive, and the relationship between the two has never appeared to dip below the level of dispassionate professional courtesy. But on the track, neither driver has shied away from throwing elbows. The crash at Silverstone and near-crash in Brazil—where Verstappen also received a warning from race officials for weaving across the track in an attempt to block Hamilton—are merely representative of the way the two have raced each other all year. Over and over we’ve seen Verstappen and Hamilton throw a yield-or-crash ultimatum at each other, as Verstappen tries to assert himself as Hamilton’s superior, and the defending champion attempts to feel out his young challenger’s limits.
Verstappen is a tough customer, and perhaps the most challenging championship rival Hamilton’s had to face in his 15-season career. At just 24, Verstappen is already a veteran of seven F1 seasons and has won more races in his career than any driver without a championship to his name. The Dutchman is the most gifted young driver to enter the sport since, well, Hamilton, and since he was a teenager, Verstappen has been groomed as a potential world champion—a goal he’s almost certain to achieve sooner or later.
Since joining Red Bull in mid-2016, Verstappen has made the most of temperamental machinery. It took his team years to get on top of the V6 turbo-hybrid rules set that Mercedes mastered almost instantly. But now the car’s previously twitchy and unforgiving chassis is stable, its Honda powertrain is at the very least on par with the top-of-the-class Mercedes engine, and it has a driver who’s cunning and fearless, but also adept at qualifying, tire management, and risk assessment—the kind of qualities that turned Hamilton from a prodigy into an all-time great.
With an improving Verstappen finally in equipment equal to the Mercedes, Hamilton and his team are fighting a championship battle from the back foot for the first time ever. And Hamilton’s recent hot streak comes not a moment too soon.
With two races left on the calendar, the championship is a virtual coin flip. Verstappen retains an eight-point lead and would win the title if the two drivers finish tied on points on account of his greater win total. That makes him a prohibitive favorite if the two drivers do take each other out again as they did in Italy and nearly did in Brazil. And while Hamilton’s new engine has made him the fastest man on the grid once again, Mercedes only made the switch because of how unreliable their power units have worn out this year. It’s possible that as Hamilton’s drivetrain racks up more mileage, Verstappen’s Honda engine will once again be able to overpower it.
It doesn’t help that the two circuits left on the calendar—the Jeddah street course in Saudi Arabia and the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi—could be unknown quantities. Jeddah is not only brand new, it’s not finished yet. And Abu Dhabi, where Verstappen won last year’s season finale, has had its layout tweaked to make it easier to pass.
But Jeddah was designed specifically for extreme high speeds, an attribute favorable to Mercedes. The two teams’ cars came from differing architectural philosophies, with Mercedes opting for a lower-drag concept that performs better on the straights, while Red Bull’s more powerful diffuser is built for higher cornering speed. And while Verstappen won in Abu Dhabi last year, Hamilton was recovering from COVID-19 and Mercedes had nothing to play for with both titles already in hand. Mercedes had won the previous six Abu Dhabi Grands Prix, with four of those wins going to Hamilton, who also won there for McLaren in 2011.
Considering how much the championship balance has swung in the past two weeks, it’s impossible to know how the two cars will stack up two weeks from now. But after years of racing legends of the past to prove he’s the greatest ever, Hamilton is racing to show he’s the best driver right now. And against all odds, he’s got a chance to win.
This post originally incorrectly stated that every driver who’s won nine races in a year has also won the championship. In 2016, a driver won 10 races and lost the title.