By: TJ Dhir
The 2021 Formula One season is now in the middle of the traditional summer shutdown. Even though only half of the races are complete, major storylines are starting to take shape up and down the grid.
Hamilton vs. Verstappen / Mercedes vs. Red Bull
For the first time since the turbo-hybrid era began in 2014, Red Bull has finally delivered a car that has challenged Mercedes from the very start of the season. Red Bull’s rise is the first time that a second team has challenged Mercedes for the crown. As the Silver Arrows have dominated the entire hybrid era of Formula 1. The main reason for Red Bull’s title challenge is Max Verstappen; the Dutch superstar finally has a car capable of winning both World Championships. A strong run of four wins in five races from Monaco to the Austrian double-header vaulted Verstappen to the lead of the Drivers’ Championship. Plus, with Sergio Perez’s strong support performances, like when he won in Azerbaijan. He helped gain Red Bull the Constructors’ Championship lead.
However, an unfortunate set of circumstances saw them surrender their lead. A controversial collision at Copse at the start of the British Grand Prix reduced Verstappen’s lead. Hamilton won the race, and the celebrations rubbed Verstappen the wrong way, especially after he was taken to hospital after the crash.
“Very disappointed with being taken out like this. The penalty does not help us and doesn’t do justice to Lewis's dangerous move on track. Watching the celebrations while still in hospital is disrespectful and unsportsmanlike behaviour, but we move on,” he said on Twitter.
Things would only get worse at the Hungarian Grand Prix with both Red Bulls involved in the chaos at the start. Perez was forced to retire, and Verstappen drove a massively damaged car to ninth place. Hamilton ended up finishing second behind Esteban Ocon. If it weren’t for Ocon’s teammate Fernando Alonso holding Hamilton up in the closing stages, the Mercedes driver would have stolen the win late in the race. Instead, Hamilton now leads the Drivers’ Championship by eight points, and Mercedes leads the Constructors’ Championship by 12 points. Momentum is now with the Silver Arrows heading into the summer break, but momentum can shift in the blink of an eye. Things can change quickly with Verstappen now licking his lips at the prospect of two “home races” out of the break at Spa and Zandvoort. The battle for both championships is currently on a knife’s edge.
Ferrari vs. McLaren
Speaking of battles on a knife’s edge, the battle for third place in the Constructors’ Championship between Ferrari and McLaren is dead even. Ferrari is in third place by finishing second in Monaco and Silverstone. McLaren’s best result of the season has been third, with Norris scoring all three podiums at Imola, Monaco, and Austria. Both teams have scored 163 points, but both teams have had their share of ups and downs.
McLaren hit the front at the start, carrying on their excellent form from last season with big points early. Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo have had contrasting starts to the season, with Norris’ performances earning him a fresh contract. Before being taken out at the beginning in Hungary, Norris was the only driver on the grid to score points in every race. Having qualified sixth in Hungary, he could have kept the streak going into the summer break. Ricciardo, on the other hand, has had a difficult start to life as a McLaren driver. Yes, a transitional period is expected for drivers when switching teams, as they have to adjust to driving a new car. However, McLaren needs him to close the gap to Norris, especially in qualifying. Ricciardo has started to do just that in the races, which has helped McLaren stay in the fight with Ferrari.
Meanwhile, the Prancing Horse has rebounded from last year’s dreadful campaign, with the team now leading the midfield and stealing the odd podium. Charles Leclerc has always been Ferrari’s preferred driver, evidenced by his extensive history with the team. Leclerc has occasionally taken this year’s and last year’s Ferrari to places it does not belong. He has only scored one podium this season at Silverstone, but that almost became a win. He’s also scored two consecutive pole positions at Monaco and Baku. Neither race saw him get the result he deserved, but he still dragged the Ferrari above where it should be. New arrival Carlos Sainz Jr. has taken the other two podiums from positions where he was not expected to take podiums. He finished in second at Monaco after qualifying fourth and finishing third in Hungary (albeit after Sebastian Vettel was disqualified) and then qualifying 15th in Hungary after crashing late in Q1. The chaotic start saw him jump up the field and saw him gain big points for Ferrari’s fight against McLaren, which happens to be his former team.
Battles between teams continue down the grid, but a slew of heartwarming stories have put a smile on everyone’s faces.
Baku saw two moments that pleased everyone. Vettel’s podium was especially pleasing, given his dreadful season at Ferrari last season. His final season with Ferrari took a toll on him, especially considering he was forced to complete an entire season with the team, knowing he would not be there afterwards. The awkwardness witnessed on Netflix’s Drive to Survive was clear to see, but Vettel’s move to Aston Martin has rejuvenated him in more ways than one. He seems happier to be in a less pressured environment at Aston Martin, and his podium at Baku proved that the four-time world champion had regained his mojo. It also says a lot that he was disappointed to miss out on the win at the Hungaroring. Sebastian Vettel is back.
In the same race at Baku, Pierre Gasly picked up his third career podium, overtaking Leclerc off the red flag restart and holding him off to finish third. The fact that Gasly has rebounded so impressively since being dropped by Red Bull in 2019 proves that he now has what it takes to fight for a big team or an ascending team. As he is part of the Red Bull scheme, there will always be a chance for him to rejoin the primary team, but it would look bad on Red Bull to bring him back after demoting him only halfway through the 2019 season. Two podium finishes and a race win at Monza last season justify the constant rumours regarding his future. However, Gasly’s podium at Baku reminded the world what he could do and again put a smile on everyone’s face.
In Hungary, Williams finally scored points for the first time since the 2019 German Grand Prix, and it was their first double-points finish since the 2018 Italian Grand Prix. However, the emotions were too much for George Russell, who has been with the team since 2019 when the team was well off the pace of the other back-markers. Russell finished eighth, scoring points for Williams for the first time to go along with his points finish with Mercedes at last year’s Sakhir Grand Prix. Toronto’s Nicholas Latifi finished seventh, giving him his first career finish in the points. Williams has been through so much since 2018, with the team going through arguably the worst period in the team’s 44-year existence. However, the double-points finish has restored Williams’ morale and saw them leapfrog Alfa Romeo and Haas in the Constructor’s Championship.
Hungary also saw yet another driver picking up his first career win. Ocon has been through so much during his time in Formula One, but it was clear from the beginning that he had talent. Returning to the grid with Renault in 2020 saw him claim his first podium at Sakhir last season before winning in Hungary this season. Ocon successfully held off Vettel and got lots of help from Alonso to hang on to a shocking yet popular win.
Formula One cars do not hit the track until August 27th at Spa, so we have time to reset before resuming a season that has already delivered so much. When the grid goes again in Belgium, more fireworks will be expected.