Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen have set up one of the great F1 title battles, so who will win?
The Hungarian Grand Prix will go down as an all-time classic in Formula One but it also reflected the tone of what has been a chaotic and thrilling championship so far.
Esteban Ocon took his and his Alpine team’s maiden win after seeing off Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel – who was later disqualified for a fuel infringement, pending an appeal.
But one of the big takeaways from the race was Lewis Hamilton snatching back the championship lead off Max Verstappen heading into the summer break.
The seven-time and defending world champion trailed the Dutchman by eight points heading into the Hungaroring, but Vettel’s disqualification bumped him up second on the day to enable him to now lead his rival by the same margin.
With 11 races down and 12 still scheduled to go, the season is promising to be one of the most entertaining in years, but here are the key factors which could affect the championship battle in the second half of the campaign.
Max Verstappen (left) and Lewis Hamilton are separated by just eight points in the title battle
The Brit (left) narrowly edged in front following his second place at the Hungarian Grand Prix
Long time Formula One fans will be familiar with the messages relayed to Lewis Hamilton by his race engineer Peter ‘Bono’ Bonnington when he needs to produce his very best at a crucial moment in the race.
The delivery of ‘Hammer time’ is an instruction for the Brit to push as hard as he can and it’s not just on race day when the Mercedes star tends to excel when the pressure is on.
During his time at Mercedes in previous championship fights he has often saved his best form for the second half of the season, most notably in 2017 and 2018 when previous title battles with Vettel, while the German was at Ferrari, ended with Hamilton breezing to the world championship with a few races to spare.
After winning the 2018 German Grand Prix following title rival Sebastian Vettel’s crash, Hamilton went on to dominate the second half of the season
Even when losing the title in 2016 to team-mate Nico Rosberg, Hamilton won the four final races from pole position in a campaign let down by his very poor start.
Hamilton has shown whether he is being chased or doing the chasing he is one of if not the toughest mentally in dealing with a championship battle.
Granted, Vettel and Ferrari imploded in 2017 and 2018 and it remains to be seen if Verstappen and Red Bull can step up as challengers where others have fallen before.
Verstappen has the talent to beat Hamilton but does he have the mental maturity to do so in the midst of a title tussle? Mind games could be crucial.
Hamilton celebrates with his third-place trophy, before being promoted to second, at the Hungaroring as he looks ahead to another late surge in his championship campaign
DRIVERS’ STANDINGS – TOP FIVE
1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 195
2. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 187
3. Lando Norris (McLaren) 113
4. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) 108
5. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) 104
Hamilton’s Long Covid
An interesting sub-plot emerged from the Hungarian Grand Prix when it was revealed Hamilton was suffering with fatigue and dizziness, so much so that he required assistance to get to the podium and needed to be assessed by a Mercedes team doctor.
The seven-time world champion contracted Covid-19 late last season, causing him to miss the Sakhir Grand Prix and the 36-year-old now believes he could be suffering effects of Long Covid.
Behind the wheel, his outright speed does not seem to have been affected too much this term, and the only real comparison that can be made is his form against team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who at the very least does not appear to be any closer in performance to Hamilton than at any point in their five seasons together.
But uncharacteristic mistakes have crept into Hamilton’s race craft this term. He spun off the track in Imola trying to chase down Verstappen, while an ill-judged attempt to snatch first place in Azerbaijan led to him overshooting a corner and tumbling down the field.
Then there was that incident at Silverstone where he clumsily punted Verstappen off the road before fortunately going on to win.
Either way he appears to be racing at the absolute limit and it will be interesting to see after the summer break if he can retain the same intensity when Red Bull and Verstappen look to bring a title charge.
But the seven-time world champion suspects he is dealing with the effects of Long Covid
Red Bull development
Mercedes have dominated the sport since 2014, winning both championships every year, and in that time only Ferrari have provided any real test to their superiority during 2017 and 2018.
The Italian outfit faded badly in both campaigns, but Red Bull provide more promise of sticking the distance in the second half of the season.
Red Bull have traditionally started poorly before gradually gaining on their rivals during a season, only to emerge as contenders once the season is all but over.
Their excellent start to the season gives them hope that they can develop their car better than Mercedes for the run-in and give them a vital edge in the championship.
Christian Horner will hope his Red Bull team can push on with development this season
Before the British Grand Prix, Hamilton was 33 points behind Verstappen and had not won in five races as the Red Bull juggernaut led by the Dutchman was threatening to take a stranglehold on the championship battle. Verstappen had won four of those five races and only a very late tyre failure cost him the fifth in Baku.
The infamous collision between the pair leading to Verstappen’s retirement and Hamilton’s win at Silverstone almost overnight swung the momentum back in Mercedes’ favour.
Verstappen had to limp home ninth after suffering in a first corner shunt triggered by Bottas in Hungary and the summer break could not have come at a better time for the struggling Red Bull team.
Max Verstappen held a commanding lead in the world championship after winning his fourth race in five at the Austrian Grand Prix back in July
But he was punted off the race track by Hamilton at Silverstone a race later to end his run
While they can use much of August to take a deep breath and regain focus following two races where they have suffered the worst possible luck, the fall-out from those season lows is still yet to materialise.
Damages to engines for both Verstappen and team-mate Sergio Perez following the Mercedes-triggered incidents could lead to them taking grid penalties for using more than their three allocated power units for the campaign.
That gives Mercedes an opportunity to prevent Red Bull from building up similar momentum to what they did at the start of the season when they won five races in a row.
Hamilton went on to win the British Grand Prix and now has all the momentum in the title battle
Before Silverstone there appeared to be relatively little needle between Mercedes and Red Bull, but the Hamilton and Verstappen crash has changed everything, especially the relationship between the teams.
Hungary only kicked the hornets’ nest when Bottas took out both Red Bull cars at the start of the race.
Toto Wolff offered his apologies to Red Bull post race in Budapest by saying: ‘It’s a small mistake that caused such a big accident costing them a lot of points and possibly two cars on the podium. So sorry for that.’
But Red Bull boss Christian Horner has been left seething by his team’s measly two points from as many races – through little fault of their own.
He effectively batted away Wolff’s apology by referring to the damage cost suffered by his cars at Mercedes’ hands recently and hinting that Wolff would still be pleased by how the errors have benefitted the Silver Arrows.
He responded to the quotes by saying: ‘Is he going to pay the bill? Ok, it’s racing. Toto wasn’t driving the car, his driver was driving the car.’
‘I’m sure he didn’t tell them “crash into Red Bull”. I’m sure he wasn’t that sorry to see the result, but I’m sure he didn’t tell Valtteri to do that.’
It follows on from Silverstone where Horner was left seething at Hamilton’s crash into Verstappen and 10-second time penalty that did little to stop him winning the race.
The Red Bull chief branded Hamilton’s passing attempt on the opening lap of the British Grand Prix as ‘desperate’ and ‘completely out of order’ before labelling the Brit’s win as a ‘hollow victory’.
Mind games will come into the title bids as races run down and tension rises, and right now Red Bull are struggling to keep their heads in admittedly frustrating times.
Verstappen’s Silverstone smash led to furious complaints about Hamilton from Red Bull
Hamilton vs Verstappen is the fight but their team-mates will be key factors in the second half of the season.
Bottas and Perez of Mercedes and Red Bull respectively have the speed and talent to win a grand prix but lack the consistency to turn that ability into championship bids.
But their teams will be hoping they can both deliver in the second half of the season following average 2021 campaigns so far.
Valtteri Bottas has struggled badly in the sister Mercedes to Hamilton this season
Despite winning in Azerbaijan, Sergio Perez has been inconsistent for Red Bull this term
Bottas is yet to win a race this term and his form has only put his future at the team in doubt beyond 2021. His clumsy error by driving into Lando Norris ruined the McLaren driver’s race as well as for both Red Bulls and has already landed him a five-place grid penalty when the season resumes at the Belgian Grand Prix at the end of the month.
Perez has at least won a race in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix but can often have events where his pace is nowhere near the leaders.
If Hamilton and Verstappen continue to fight at the front, as expected, then Mercedes and Red Bull will be counting on their No 2 drivers to at least keep them in sight as their presence on the track could be vital when it comes to race strategy in terms of pit-stops and potentially harming their rivals’ races whether by stealing points or holding them up, albeit fairly, on the circuit.
Bottas (left) triggered a multi-car pile up in Hungary which led to the retirement of Perez (right)
Rain on the title parade?
Neither Hamilton nor Verstappen will have bogey tracks to fear in the second half of the season and both have races to look forward too – Verstappen competing in front of his home fans for the return of the Dutch Grand Prix, while Hamilton has always been mega around Suzuka for the Japanese Grand Prix.
But one factor out of everyone’s control could simply be the weather. Hungary proved that a little bit of water on the track can throw any sense of form and predictability out of the window.
Rain does often benefit Hamilton though, who is considered the best in the business mastering the tricky conditions, emphasising the point in Turkey last year by producing one of his greatest drives on the slippery wet track to claim his seventh world championship.
Hamilton is known for his devastating pace in wet conditions, and in slippery conditions at the Turkish Grand Prix last season won in thrilling fashion to claim his seventh world championship
Verstappen is quick too in wet conditions and there are a few circuits which are no stranger to a change in conditions.
The next race at Spa is one of them – with the long circuit through the Ardennes forests enough to produce its own micro climate where one section of the track can be bone dry and another partly soaked by rain.
But the Japanese and Brazilian races are also known for their share of wet (and bonkers) races, while events in Holland, Turkey and the United States have also been known to throw up elements of rain.
That’s nearly half of the grands prix remaining on the calendar so, while Hamilton and Verstappen could provide their A games along with their teams, a random fall of rain could make or break either one’s weekend – or season.