Predicting Lewis Hamilton v Max Verstappen - and how the battle will play out for the rest of the season

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Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen - Predicting Lewis Hamilton v Max Verstappen - and how the battle will play out for the rest of the season - GETTY IMAGES
Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen - Predicting Lewis Hamilton v Max Verstappen - and how the battle will play out for the rest of the season - GETTY IMAGES

One of the most closely-fought and entertaining title battles in recent Formula One history resumes this weekend in Austin, with the United States Grand Prix.

There have been 16 races so far, with six more to come. Just six points separate Red Bull's Max Verstappen and Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton with six rounds to go.

Tom Cary breaks down which car - and which man - might have the advantage in each of the remaining races.

United States - Hamilton

With five wins from six races in the turbo hybrid era, the Circuit of the Americas has historically been a stronghold for Mercedes, although that’s not surprising when you consider the Brackley team have enjoyed the quickest car for most of that period.

With the cars so evenly matched this year, it isn’t easy to pick a winner on a circuit that offers a fairly balanced mix of high-speed corners, long straights (which in theory should favour Mercedes) and twistier sections (which should favour Red Bull).

If you had to stake your mortgage on one team, though, it would be Mercedes given their upturn in performance since the summer break and their track record at COTA.

Mexico - Verstappen

Big Red Bull track. Or so the theory goes.

At nearly 2300m altitude - easily the highest of any F1 circuit on the calendar - the idea is the thin air suits Red Bull’s Honda engine better than the Mercedes engine (for the tech-minded, this is because the turbo is having to work harder to compress the air, and the Honda turbo is slightly smaller than the Mercedes turbo, making it easier to get up to the required rev levels needed to maximise this). Mercedes’ aero-efficiency advantage is also less pronounced at altitude.

Recent results in Mexico bear witness to Red Bull’s superiority at this circuit, with Verstappen victorious in two of his last three outings there, and qualifying fastest in the other one only to then cop a grid penalty.

Brazil - Verstappen

Another tough one to call, as the circuit is fairly well balanced with the twisty infield favouring the higher downforce of Red Bull, and the long drag from Juncao up the hill to the start-finish straight and then all the way down to turn one more likely to suit Mercedes. Probably the biggest factor here will be the local conditions, with torrential downpours a perennial threat.

Which team will be smarter on the day, which driver will make the most of the conditions? All things being equal, perhaps you would just give this one to Red Bull on the basis that it’s another ‘altitude’ circuit. Only 800m. But every little helps.

Qatar - Verstappen

The first of two new circuits in the final three races. It looks like being another one which might just favour Red Bull thanks to its proliferation of medium- and high-speed corners.

But the truth is no one really knows until we get there. Local climactic conditions, air density, track temperatures, grip levels… teams do not have much data to go on at the moment so all will be revealed in practice.

Saudi Arabia - Hamilton

Again, this will be a voyage of discovery over the course of the weekend but where you might have given Qatar to Red Bull, the Jeddah Corniche Circuit looks on paper much more likely to favour Mercedes.

Although it is nominally a ‘street circuit’ it is a purpose-built one, with plenty of long flat-out stretches where Mercedes can really get their engine working at 100 per cent and extract the maximum from their lower-drag car.

Abu Dhabi - Hamilton

The seven-time champion loves this circuit. Hamilton won once here for McLaren back in 2011 and has a record of four victories from his last seven starts for Mercedes at Yas Marina. That said, Verstappen and Red Bull dominated the entire weekend here last year.

Hamilton had already tied up the championship by then, of course, so perhaps he was a little demob happy by the time the F1 circus arrived in Abu Dhabi. He was also recovering from a bout of Covid, saying after the race that he felt “destroyed” by the virus and was just “happy to be alive”.

One thing is certain, with overtaking so difficult, qualifying will be extremely important at the final race of the season.

Conclusion

We’ve given three of the remaining six races to Red Bull and three to Mercedes but the truth is only one or two of the circuits definitely favour one car over the other. With only six points separating Verstappen and Hamilton as things stand, and the cars so evenly matched, on paper at least the 2021 season should go down to the wire.

That, though, assumes both drivers come through every round unscathed. And that’s the big question mark. As we reach what Sir Alex Ferguson memorably labelled ‘squeaky bum’ time, any mistake will be magnified; any DNF, any botched pitstop strategy, any driver error leading to a significant penalty, any contact...Hamilton, with his experience, should be better placed to handle the pressure of the run-in, but Verstappen has proved a formidable opponent this year.

It promises to be a fascinating finale.

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