View from the paddock: Verstappen has the momentum, but can Hamilton hit back in ‘must win’ Sao Paulo GP?
Coats, scarves and umbrellas were the order of the day at a soggy Interlagos on Thursday, as the F1 fraternity arrived in Brazil for the second round of 2021’s final triple-header – but the weather did little to dampen the enthusiasm surrounding the tight championship fight between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton.
On paper, everything is pointing towards Verstappen extending his 19-point lead in the drivers’ championship in the Sao Paulo Grand Prix, the Red Bull driver having won the last edition of the race while only a collision with Esteban Ocon when lapping the then-Racing Point driver in 2018 prevented him winning that one as well.
He’s also got the momentum, first winning in Austin – a traditional Mercedes stronghold – and then again in Mexico, moving his tally to nine wins for the season. Hamilton on the other hand has won just five times, and only once since the summer break and even that one was somewhat fortunate as Lando Norris skated out of the lead in the rain in Sochi to open the door for the seven-time world champion.
It's no surprise then that Hamilton said on Thursday that “every race is a must-win race”. He added: “It’s been a must-win race since forever, particularly since we came back since the break but we’ve not really managed to be able to do so.”
“[Red Bull’s] pace was obviously phenomenal in the last race. They’ve had a strong car all year, they’ve had the strongest car, you can tell. I think we’ve done as good as I think we could. We are definitely going to be pushing this weekend to see if we can squeeze any more from out of the car. Last time here they were incredibly strong so we anticipate again they will be very hard to beat this weekend. Where there’s a will there’s a way hopefully.”
And it is that determination that has yielded six titles in the last seven years for Hamilton and which has kept him in this title fight. That he has won four fewer races than Verstappen this year (he’s also only started on pole three times this year and just once in the last 14 races) and is still in the title hunt, only 19 points adrift proves that his determination remains. There are still, after all, 107 points up for grabs.
His team mate Valtteri Bottas was looking at the positives and while he thinks Red Bull will still have the advantage coming to Brazil, he’s hoping it will be “a smaller one”. And he believes Mercedes can get a one-two result if “everything is perfect”.
Sergio Perez is showing the kind of confidence three successive podiums would give you right now. He’s super comfortable at Red Bull and things are starting to click much quicker when setting the car up at each race weekend, which in turn has allowed him to start on the front foot.
And he’s aligned with Bottas in that there will be nothing to choose between the two constructor title rivals this weekend. “I think it’s so close,” he said. “We saw it already in Mexico, they were stronger than us in qualifying. We were stronger in the race because Max took the lead. I think if they would’ve stayed in the lead then things would’ve looked very different so I think it’s going to be very close and we’ll see who has the upper hand.”
Verstappen is remaining incredibly calm despite heading into the business end of his first ever F1 championship fight. That’s in part, he says, because he’s blocking it out and not even thinking about it. “It’s very simple to be honest because if you don’t think about it, you don’t have any dreams or whatever,” he said.
And he knows that while 19 points is a significant advantage, things can change quickly. Earlier this year, having led by 32 points after Austria, he found himself eight behind – after a 40-point swing and a DNF at Silverstone – in the space of three races.
“I am just really focused,” he said. “In four races, a lot of things can happen. We are looking good but things can change very quickly. I’ve had a bigger lead already in the championship and that disappeared within two race weekends so we have to again try to do the best we can here and again after this weekend we will try again to try and win the race. My approach every single weekend is the same so we will not change that.”
Verstappen repeated his mantra that “whatever happens in the end [of the championship] it’s not going to change my life”. It’s this approach that is keeping his feet on the ground – and is giving him the edge right now. But Hamilton is by no means down and out just yet.