Formula 1 is the new soccer, in that it’s a sport that was once viewed by Americans as a bizarre foreign enterprise but is now increasing in popularity among people willing to wake up early on Sunday mornings. One of the major drivers (ha ha) of F1’s newfound popularity is the Netflix docuseries Drive to Survive, which portrays the world’s most prestigious auto racing series as a soap opera. And in many ways, it is—F1 is first and foremost a playground for weird rich people. (This is not a criticism.)
But the real genius of Drive to Survive is turning the focus of the series away from the fight for the championship and toward the teams racing in the middle of the pack. The show’s creators did this for a variety of reasons—access, driver turnover, Haas team principal Guenther Steiner’s virtuosic deployment of profanity—but primarily because entering the 2021 season, we hadn’t seen a competitive drivers’ title race (again, the puns almost write themselves) since 2016. And the last close title fight between drivers from different teams was in 2012.
Since Formula 1 adopted its current engine regulations in 2014, Mercedes has won every constructors’ championship, and Lewis Hamilton has won six of seven drivers’ titles. (The lone exception was 2016, when he finished five points behind teammate Nico Rosberg and 124 points ahead of any non-Mercedes driver.) Taylor Swift has reinvented her sound three times since the last time anyone so much as put a scare into Hamilton. Of course Netflix would train its cameras on a sector of the grid where the results weren’t so predetermined.
In 2021, however, the drama is very much at the front of the field. Hamilton and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen have combined to win nine of 11 races so far this year, and the only two exceptions came when Verstappen crashed and Hamilton made a mistake that took him out of first place. As the season resumes on Sunday, just eight points separate the two best drivers on the grid, who are competing for the first time in similarly fast cars. Don’t feel like waiting for Netflix to recap this battle? Here’s what you need to know to join the story in progress.
Styles make fights, and that’s especially true in F1, where drivers’ personalities have an outsized impact on story lines and petty grievances can fester into blood feuds. Tics and grudges become just as celebrated as drivers’ great passes and blistering qualifying laps. The pinnacle of auto racing is also the sport of: “Men will literally drive a car in circles as fast as they can instead of going to therapy.” And while the Hamilton-Verstappen rivalry isn’t as acrimonious as other title battles have been—at least, not yet—the two drivers’ differing personalities set up a Homeric clash of characters.
Hamilton, a 36-year-old Englishman, is the most decorated driver in the history of the sport. He’s won more races and pole positions than anyone in F1 history and shares the record for most career world championships with Michael Schumacher; if he beats Verstappen this year, he’ll become the first driver to win the title eight times. As a younger driver, Hamilton sometimes clashed with teammates and rivals, and he drew tabloid headlines for his jet-setting lifestyle. Was said lifestyle really that unusual, or was he just under extra scrutiny because he’s the only Black driver in the 71-year history of Formula 1? Who can say? But he’s by far the sport’s biggest star. He was one of two just motorsport athletes on ESPN’s World Fame 100 list in 2019. And last year, he cracked the Time 100 and was the fourth F1 driver to be awarded a knighthood, and the first to be awarded a knighthood while actively racing.
More recently, though, Hamilton has become one of the sport’s leading voices on social issues. He drew the ire of the FIA for wearing a T-shirt that read “Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor” and “Say her name” after the Tuscan Grand Prix last year. He also set up a commission to address the lack of opportunities for Black racing drivers in the U.K. and pushed both Mercedes and F1 to take at least a stand against racism (even if they ended up being somewhat hollow).
Hamilton’s first significant appearance in the most recent season of Drive to Survive was at a press conference before the Australian Grand Prix, in which he questioned why the race was going ahead with the COVID-19 pandemic clearly brewing into a global crisis. The race was canceled the next day.
Hamilton has grown to embrace the platform his on-track successes have given him, and he’s a fierce competitor who has the win-at-all-costs mentality that defines any successful racer. But he’s also small in stature and speaks quietly and introspectively. This is in contrast to Verstappen, a 23-year-old from the Netherlands who’s viewed as heir presumptive to the title of world’s best racing driver.
While Hamilton comes from working-class origins, Verstappen is the son of former Formula 1 driver Jos Verstappen and has been viewed as a prodigy since he was a child. The younger Verstappen started his first Formula 1 race at 17 and picked up his first win at 18—both records. Verstappen speaks with the confidence not only of youth, but of a lifetime of one success after another—and with a bracing bluntness.
Last year, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc crashed into Verstappen on the first lap of the Sakhir Grand Prix, taking both drivers out of the race. When a TV reporter told Verstappen that Leclerc had admitted he was to blame for the crash, Verstappen simply said, “As he should,” and called the move “reckless.”
For a succinct summary of the differences in personality between Verstappen and Hamilton, consider the postrace press conference from last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix, when Hamilton and Verstappen finished 1-2. Not that anyone remembers that—the race is most famous for a first-lap crash that tore Romain Grosjean’s car in half and ignited a hellacious fireball from which the veteran French driver barely escaped.
After the race, a reporter asked both Hamilton and Verstappen whether drivers should have the option of withdrawing from the competition after witnessing such a frightening incident. The substance of their answers was similar—both said they didn’t have any hesitation about getting back into the car—but they made the point in different ways. Hamilton said he trusted the FIA’s safety measures, while Verstappen took a more direct route.
“I don’t get why you wouldn’t race,” he said. “If the guy wouldn’t race, if I were the team boss I would tell them ‘No? Then you will never sit in the seat again.’”
Hamilton did a double take, laughed, and told Verstappen, “I hope you’re never my team boss. I feel sorry for anyone who is going to be your driver in the future.”
Verstappen has spent his entire career in the Red Bull developmental system, where he’s been under the tutelage of a similarly quotable boss, team principal Christian Horner. Horner is an urbane former racing driver who’s married to former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell. If Verstappen can be abrasive, Horner is a relentless shit talker.
In contrast to venerable auto manufacturers like Mercedes and Ferrari, or dynastic F1 legacy teams like Williams and McLaren, Red Bull Racing is an offshoot of an energy drink company. And from the corporate leadership on down, it’s thirsty. While Mercedes resisted Drive to Survive at first, Red Bull embraced it, making Horner one of the stars of the series. On Mercedes’ YouTube channel, you’ll find detailed engineering discussions with technical director James Allison.
On Red Bull’s, you’ll find its pit crew changing tires in zero gravity.
But Red Bull’s style matches its substance. In 2004, Red Bull bought the moribund Jaguar Racing team and charged Horner, then just 31 years old, with molding it into a champion. Horner hired legendary designer Adrian Newey away from McLaren to build the team’s cars, and Red Bull started a developmental program under Le Mans winner and Formula 3 executive Helmut Marko to find people to drive them. Verstappen is one of six graduates of Marko’s academy currently on the F1 grid, along with Daniel Ricciardo, Pierre Gasly, Yuki Tsunoda, Carlos Sainz, and world champion Sebastian Vettel. It was Vettel who put Red Bull on the map in the late 2000s, winning the team’s first race and four consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ titles, the last of those by a 155-point margin not even Hamilton has matched. Only four teams in F1 history have won four consecutive constructors’ titles: Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes, and Red Bull.
Mercedes rejoined the F1 grid as a full constructor in 2010 after achieving championship success building engines for McLaren and Brawn GP. The team struggled for the first three years of its existence, but in 2013 it hired Hamilton away from McLaren and team principal Toto Wolff away from Williams.
That year, Mercedes finished a distant second in the constructors’ championship to Red Bull, but in doing so, it laid the groundwork for its future championship run. The “Formula” in Formula 1 refers to a set of rules that govern car design, and championships are won and lost based on which team can best use those rules to its advantage. Every few years, the FIA completely rewrites the rulebook and forces teams to start over, and the team that figures out those changes first (or finds the Air Bud–type loophole in the regulations) has a huge head start on the competition. Red Bull set up its run of title wins by adapting well to new aerodynamic rules that came into force in 2009; Mercedes, meanwhile, spent the 2013 season working on a new engine to meet regulations that were first applied in 2014.
For seven years, that engine led Mercedes to a run of unprecedented dominance. Red Bull—and the rest of the field—got left behind.
But now Red Bull has a Honda engine that’s capable of outgunning that of Mercedes, and between that and a few minor rules changes—look up “rake” and “dual-axis steering” if you want to know the engineering specifics—Red Bull started the 2021 season with the superior car. For the first time, Verstappen is racing with equipment that gives him a fighting chance against Hamilton, and he’s taking advantage.
The Season So Far
The pendulum has swung back and forth between Hamilton and Verstappen a few times this year. Hamilton has used his veteran savvy to outwit his younger rival on multiple occasions, but he’s also made some uncharacteristic mistakes. At the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, Hamilton crashed while impatiently chasing Verstappen through lapped traffic and was incredibly lucky to salvage second place. In Azerbaijan, he threw away a likely victory by fat-fingering a button on his steering wheel during a restart and locking up his front brakes. That sent 25 points literally up in smoke.
But Verstappen has had misfortunes of his own. At the same Azerbaijan Grand Prix, he blew a tire late in the race and crashed out of the lead. And in each of the first three races of the year, he was penalized for going off the racetrack. The most notable of those instances came in Bahrain, where he had to give back what would’ve been a race-winning pass on Hamilton after the stewards found he’d violated track limits. These penalties caused no end of annoyance to Horner and served as a harbinger of greater drama to come.
On the ninth corner of July’s British Grand Prix, Hamilton pulled alongside Verstappen and tried to muscle him out of position to take the lead. The Red Bull had been quicker all weekend to that point, so Hamilton knew if he didn’t get ahead of his rival at the start, the race would be all but over. Verstappen refused to yield, but couldn’t get all the way past Hamilton and the two touched wheels, sending the Red Bull into the grass at 190 miles per hour.
The stewards judged the crash to be Hamilton’s fault—unlike in NASCAR, rubbin’ is very much not racin’ in F1—but he overcame a 10-second penalty and went on to win the race. Verstappen could have let Hamilton through and tried to retake the lead later in the race—he had the faster car, after all. Instead, he went to the hospital after a 51G crash, with no points.
Verstappen’s crash ended a five-race Red Bull winning streak and reduced a 33-point drivers’ championship lead to eight. Marko was furious and demanded that Hamilton be suspended. Horner called Hamilton “desperate” and “dirty,” and a week later had still not calmed down. In a column on the Red Bull website, Horner criticized Wolff for pleading Hamilton’s case to the stewards while they were investigating the collision, said Mercedes had celebrated the win too enthusiastically, and complained about the $1.8 million cost of rebuilding Verstappen’s wrecked car. Red Bull also appealed to Formula 1 officials for a stiffer penalty for Hamilton, and was essentially laughed out of the room.
Then, just as tempers were cooling down, another first-lap crash at the Hungarian Grand Prix set everyone back on edge. Starting on a wet track, Mercedes no. 2 driver Valtteri Bottas slid into the back of Lando Norris’s McLaren, setting in motion a pinball reaction that left Verstappen’s car too damaged to fight through traffic after the restart and took Red Bull no. 2 driver Sergio Perez out of the race. Verstappen finished ninth, while Hamilton came in second, earning enough points to retake the championship lead.
Horner, in typical seething sarcastic style, said Bottas “did a great job for Mercedes in taking out both of our cars.” Informed that Wolff had apologized for his driver’s mistake, Horner asked if that meant Mercedes was going to pay the repair bill.
The history of Formula 1 is rife with great championship feuds, from the famous Senna-Prost and Mansell-Piquet intra-team battles of the 1980s, to Schumacher spending the mid-1990s putting one championship rival after another into the wall. As serene as Hamilton seems now, even he’s had a few heated rivalries, most notably with Rosberg in their four years together at Mercedes.
But it wasn’t until the Silverstone crash that Hamilton had gotten into it with Verstappen, or that Wolff had let Horner get under his skin. In the wake of the failed Red Bull appeal, Mercedes released a statement accusing Red Bull of deliberately attempting to slander Hamilton, as the seven-time champion received racist messages online from fans during and after the race. Hamilton himself has taken the proverbial high road, but the longer he and Verstappen trade blows on track, the more likely it becomes that tensions will boil over again.
The Season to Come
Three races ago, Verstappen looked like he had Hamilton on the ropes. His lead in the championship was more than an entire race’s worth of points, his car looked substantially faster, and Mercedes was starting to make mistakes. Now, though, Hamilton has out-qualified Verstappen in two consecutive races and retaken the championship lead.
This week starts a triple-header of races in Western Europe. The Belgian Grand Prix and Italian Grand Prix will both take place at iconic high-speed circuits known for producing exciting and unexpected outcomes. In between the two is the Dutch Grand Prix, the first F1 race in Verstappen’s home country since 1985. Circuit Zandvoort is more technical than the other two, but it features sharply banked corners—common in American series but highly unusual in F1—on a track that nobody on the grid has raced an F1 car before.
Complicating matters further is the fact that nobody knows how many races are left in the season. The original calendar called for 23, but five have already been canceled or postponed due to local COVID outbreaks. There are currently 10 more races on the calendar, but there could be further cancellations or replacement races added to return the season to its original length.
That leaves both teams in the bizarre position of not knowing how many more points are left at stake or whether a new circuit will favor Verstappen and the Red Bull or Hamilton and the Mercedes. It also poses a unique problem for Red Bull in terms of engine allotment. In order to keep costs down, each team is allowed to use only three power units per season. If a driver uses a fourth power unit, he has to start that race 10 places back from where he qualified.
Red Bull made a scheduled engine change to Verstappen’s car seven races into the season. But after Verstappen crashed at Silverstone, the Red Bull leader is now on his third and final power unit. That makes it a near certainty he’ll have to take a penalty at some point in the second half of the season, particularly if the schedule runs the intended 23 races. One can only imagine the levels of caustic-yet-understated disdain Horner would unleash if—after a season of having a first-place car but eighth-place luck—the championship swings on a grid penalty.
But that’s just how fine the margins look right now. Formula 1 is still a great reality show—and now it has a title fight to match the behind-the-scenes intrigue.