Mercedes are favourites for F1 title, but here's where it could still go wrong for Lewis Hamilton

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Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton (L) and Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen (R) greet eachother after obtaining the first and second positions respectively, in Brazil's Formula One Sao Paulo Grand Prix at the Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace, or Interlagos racetrack, in Sao Paulo, on November 14, 2021 - AFP
Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton (L) and Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen (R) greet eachother after obtaining the first and second positions respectively, in Brazil's Formula One Sao Paulo Grand Prix at the Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace, or Interlagos racetrack, in Sao Paulo, on November 14, 2021 - AFP

The nature of Lewis Hamilton’s contrasting wins in Brazil and Qatar should have Red Bull and Max Verstappen worried heading into the final two rounds in the Middle East. Brazil was a charge from the back but Qatar was dominant.

The form book (and the championship advantage) has gone back and forth between Red Bull and Mercedes. Now the pendulum looks to have swung the furthest in Hamilton’s favour, despite his eight-point deficit. It could be decisive. If Hamilton wins the final two rounds he is champion.

Yet this season has been anything but simple. Here are five ways that Hamilton’s charge to an eighth world championship could yet be derailed.

Engine degredation

The main concern for Mercedes since the summer break has been the performance and reliability of their engines. Hamilton took new Internal Combustion Engines in Turkey (a 10-place grid penalty) and again in Brazil (five places). Team-mate Valtteri Bottas had power unit-related penalties in Italy, Russia and the United States.

Reliability problems are expected given the component limits over a 22-race season, but the machinery that Mercedes have been going through is surprising. The problems appear to relate to a high-level of performance degradation on the Mercedes engines over time (not suffered apparently by Red Bull’s Honda units).

On Sunday evening, team principal Toto Wolff said that Hamilton would fit the “spicy” ICE that was used in Brazil for Saudi Arabia - a new, high-speed track that looks to be extremely power hungry - having used another from the “pool” in Qatar. In Brazil, Hamilton's advantage on the straights at Interlagos was emphatic and the new engine would have played a part in that.

Does that make Jeddah a certainty for Hamilton? Far from it. Firstly, Wolff could be bluffing to wind up rival Christian Horner. And that “new” ICE is no longer new, so will suffer the same high degradation as other units. Hamilton presumably had to use it at a high setting to charge through the pack in Brazil, so the degradation may be even higher still.

Mercedes' issues here mean they are trading off between track position, performance and the risk of failure. They could face difficult decisions in the next two rounds. Part of the reason victory in Qatar looked so comfortable was because Verstappen was too distant to be able to disrupt Hamilton strategically due to his own grid penalty. Given the history between the two and the state of play, Mercedes would surely prefer to avoid Hamilton sharing the same piece of track as Verstappen.

Verstappen aggression

Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing RB16B Honda and Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes W12 crash during the F1 Grand Prix of Italy at Autodromo di Monza on September 12, 2021 in Monza, Italy - Getty Images Europe
Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing RB16B Honda and Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes W12 crash during the F1 Grand Prix of Italy at Autodromo di Monza on September 12, 2021 in Monza, Italy - Getty Images Europe

Red Bull are being backed into a corner as Verstappen’s lead has been eroded. With Mercedes the quicker car in race trim, might Verstappen repeat what he did in Brazil if he finds himself ahead and aggressively defend? Or in a scenario where he starts second but gets a better start than Hamilton, might he launch himself up the inside, knowing that if the Mercedes gets ahead then it could be all-but game over for him?

If he finds himself being chased down in Saudi Arabia or Abu Dhabi, why would he not try to run Hamilton off the road? Especially given that he has already done so in Brazil? Throughout the season Verstappen has been aggressive and robust when the two have come together on track. It would be strange if he suddenly changed tack with it all on the line.

The possibility of Verstappen cruising to two-second places behind Hamilton and taking the title has disappeared. A repeat of Senna/Prost is looking ever more likely.

Bottas vs Perez

Sergio Perez of Mexico driving the (11) Red Bull Racing RB16B Honda leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes W12 during the F1 Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 14, 2021 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Sergio Perez of Mexico driving the (11) Red Bull Racing RB16B Honda leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes W12 during the F1 Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 14, 2021 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

There has been a huge distance between Verstappen and Hamilton and their respective team-mates this season, but the roles that Sergio Perez and Valtteri Bottas might play in the final two rounds could be crucial. It is unlikely that Perez or Bottas will finish ahead of either of the two championship contenders on track but their teams will want them to be able to run close enough to make life difficult for the other team strategically.

As it stands Red Bull’s Perez looks more likely to play a decisive hand. After his fine win in Turkey, Bottas’s performances on Sunday have dropped off, whereas Perez has continued to improve in qualifying and races.

The Mexican seems the better (and more willing) wheel-to-wheel fighter, too. When Perez has been in the position to fight Hamilton on track he has done a better job than Bottas against Verstappen. In Turkey Perez’s defending was crucial to limiting Hamilton to fifth place and, though it was not decisive in the end, the Mexican overtook the Briton immediately after losing a place to him.

Bottas has opened the door twice to Verstappen, making his life easier not harder; first in Russia when both were coming through the field and then again at the start in Mexico when he allowed Verstappen the space for a bold move around the outside, undoing Mercedes’ front-row start before the second corner.

The Abu Dhabi effect

Mercedes are clear favourites for Saudi Arabia due to its high-speed nature, but who Abu Dhabi might favour is less clear. It could well be Red Bull, who won here in 2020. It has traditionally been strong for Mercedes and Hamilton but this season that does not count for much. If it's Hamilton first and Verstappen second in Jeddah then Hamilton will need to finish ahead of Verstappen in Abu Dhabi.

It is possible that he takes a lights-to-flag victory from pole but, as alluded to above, another engine penalty may be necessary and he could need to overtake Verstappen on track. This would be less than ideal as the Abu Dhabi circuit is notoriously difficult for overtaking.

Fernando Alonso suffered badly in 2010, his Ferrari stuck behind the slower Renault of Vitaly Petrov for 37 laps as he finished seventh when fourth would have been enough to deny Sebastian Vettel his first world championship. It is not impossible that Hamilton gets stuck behind other drivers in an unfortunate way, handing an advantage to Verstappen.

On the other hand, it could also be Verstappen that suffers this fate if he trails Hamilton on track. The Yas Marina circuit has also been modified since 2020, with the hideous chicane towards the end of the second straight removed. The hairpin at the end of the first sector could be the new and best place to overtake.

The stewards/FIA

A lot has been made of the Mercedes’ advantage in Brazil coming from their engine but Red Bull have been making lot of noise about the W12’s rear wing, too. Red Bull’s complaints led to new tests being introduced by the FIA after qualifying in Qatar. Horner had made comments of unusual “score marks” and insinuations of an unfair advantage. Toto Wolff said that Red Bull were seeing “ghosts”.

Mercedes, as they would do, have hit back saying everything is above board and that they will protest Red Bull’s car, too. It is all a little unseemly but predictable and expected, given what is at stake and the heightened tensions throughout the year. But it is nothing new.

Just as the chances of an on-track collision are increasing, so is the possibility of the championship decided in the courts some time before - or even after? - Christmas.

Given the furore over Verstappen's lack of penalty for his defensive move in Brazil, the championship could be decided not in the courts but in the stewards' room after the race.

Both of these would lead a sour taste in the mouth.

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