Max Verstappen won’t say it, but the reality is that he is in pretty much total control of this year’s Formula 1 championship battle after victory in Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix.
The Red Bull driver has taken four wins in the past five races and only did not win them all because his left rear tyre exploded when he was leading five laps from the end of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Two months ago, after Lewis Hamilton won the Spanish Grand Prix to take the Mercedes driver’s third win of the opening four races, Verstappen was 14 points behind the seven-time champion.
Now, with nine races completed, Verstappen leads Hamilton by 32 points. There may well be, as Verstappen keeps reminding everyone, a long way to go – although with the pandemic still in full swing, no one is quite sure exactly how many races there will be this season – but it is looking harder and harder to see a way back for Hamilton from this.
As Hamilton put it himself on Sunday: “Max is walking away with it right now and there is not really much we can do about it.”
Verstappen’s second win within a week at the Red Bull Ring was pretty much a carbon copy of the first. He was the fastest man all weekend, he took pole, and he serenely drove away into a race of his own from the moment the lights went out.
It is not completely clear how much of a challenge Hamilton might have been able to mount, because the world champion started only fourth and took 20 laps to find a way by Lando Norris’ McLaren on a stellar weekend for the 21-year-old Briton.
By the time he had, Verstappen was long gone and continued to pull away. No-one at Mercedes seriously thought they had a chance against Verstappen on Sunday.
Hamilton should have finished second, but when a piece of aerodynamically critical bodywork fell off the rear of his car as he went over the kerbs on the exit of Turn 10 in the normal manner at about lap 29, he lost more than 0.5 seconds-worth of performance a lap.
Mercedes hoped they might be able to use his team-mate Valtteri Bottas to protect Hamilton from Norris, but when it became clear that was not going to be possible because of Hamilton’s lack of pace – and rapidly deteriorating tyres – they swapped their cars, and Hamilton fell behind Norris as well to finish fourth.
The weekend had gone so smoothly for Verstappen – who was serenaded on his way to victory by a crowd of 60,000 that seemed to be almost entirely composed of orange-clad fans from his home country – that he could barely believe it.
“When you go into the weekend, everyone sees you as the favourite,” he said, “but it’s never easy to always deliver what we did today. So a great effort by the whole team. The whole package over these two weeks here has been incredible.”
And on the championship fight, he just keeps coming back to the same old mantra.
“I am enjoying it but I am very focused on the rest of the season,” Verstappen said. “It is still so long and there are still a lot of points you need to score. We need to make sure we are back up there every weekend and use the whole potential of the car. We were very dominant in Austria but we have to make sure we are there again in Silverstone.”
The raw statistics of the past few races look bleak for Mercedes, but there is some light in the clouds. Lest we forget, Hamilton would have won in France two weeks ago but for a team strategic error, and next up is the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, which at least in historical terms is very much a Mercedes circuit.
Mercedes engineers believe that some of the explanation for their relatively poor performance in Austria is track specific, and that the nature of Silverstone should swing the performance back towards them.
At the same time, though, there is no doubting Red Bull have made a significant step forward with their car in recent races, with developments to the floor, diffuser, front wing, nose and barge boards, and Mercedes have brought none.
There will be some Mercedes upgrades at Silverstone, although Bottas said he thought they might be the last ones. A lot is hanging on them. Will they, and the track, be enough to allow Mercedes to take Red Bull on once more? And what about the races after that?
“They have added so much performance,” Hamilton said, “and we have a lot of work to do to try and close that gap.
“I hope our car feels better [at Silverstone]. It has been pretty poor here the last two weeks – it has definitely been a painful few races. But we will keep our heads up and keep trying.
“We will work as much as we can to improve in the next couple of weeks. We have been massively down at this track. It will be interesting to see how it is in the other races to go.”
Team boss Toto Wolff, meanwhile, was spinning the positives.
“I am always a sceptical person, half-empty glass, but I am seeing the positives,” he said. “We have 13-14 races to go. We are one retirement away from Red Bull and we have lost more points than we should have lost to our own mistakes.
“Clearly in Austria the last two races we did not have the performance we must have in order to fight Red Bull and we need to get our act together in every single area and hopefully perform better on the other tracks.
“Losing 13 or 14 points is not great but this is still the long game. It is against the odds for us now, and that’s clear because they have a performance advantage and you can see that.
“But all these years I have tried to keep our feet on the ground by not being carried away with performance and now I need to do the opposite.
“We are not going to give up at this stage of the season. We are not going to give up at any time unless it is not mathematically possible any more to win this championship.
“So we need to see things optimistically rather than pessimistically like we have done in the past.”
Right now, there is a distinct sense that Red Bull, after eight years of being starved of success, are throwing everything at this campaign and taking a bit of a gamble with 2022 in a season in which teams are battling caps on budgets and research and development while designing a car to an entirely new philosophy of rules next term.
Wolff has made it clear that Mercedes have already thrown all their development work on to 2022, even if there are still some new parts coming through the production pipeline.
Red Bull, by contrast, are very much not saying that and team principal Christian Horner’s tone is very different to Wolff’s.
“You have to go week by week, race by race,” Horner said on Sunday, “and the team is doing a great job of balancing the challenges of this year and next. It is nothing new, we have had big regulation changes in the past. You just have to balance your resource and apply it to what needs it most.”
Hamilton will not be looking at it this way yet, but if the long run of success he has enjoyed is brought to an end by Verstappen this season, there is always next year, or the year after.
Over the weekend, it was announced that Hamilton had signed another two-year deal with Mercedes, and, while there was never any prospect of him stepping away from the sport, he said that the excitement of the battle with Verstappen had strengthened his resolve to carry on.
“The start of this season when the cars were so close in performance – pretty much equal – it was one of the most exciting times I’ve had for some time to have this battle with Red Bull,” Hamilton said.
“I was really hoping it would continue on like that but as you have seen they have taken a huge leap forwards.
“Last year was a long journey, it is a good time to reflect and I found myself waking up thinking about racing and now we’re having this tight battle it has brought me closer to the team and it is making me dig deeper and I love that. I guess it has been reinvigorating on the love I have for the sport.”
Still, Hamilton will be approaching 39 by the end of his new contract and his career is clearly closer to the end than the beginning.
But the notion that British representation at the top of F1 will continue long after he has gone was reinforced over the weekend by two outstanding performances from Norris and George Russell.
Both were brilliant in qualifying – Norris putting the McLaren second on the grid and Russell guiding a Williams into the top 10 for the first time – and in the race.
Norris may well have beaten Bottas to second place had he not been controversially punished with a five-second time penalty for pushing Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez wide on the first full lap of racing – he finished just two seconds behind the Mercedes.
And Russell lost out on a first point for Williams only after 10 laps of redoubtable defence against, of all people, two-time champion Fernando Alonso.
“I felt a little bit sad for George,” Alonso said, “because he drove an amazing weekend and when I saw P10 was him, I was hoping it would be anyone but him.
“I had much better tyres and much better traction out of Turn Three and I could make the move three laps from the end. He will have more opportunities hopefully for podiums or wins in the future.”
A couple of races ago Alonso and Russell swapped helmets. Alonso wrote on the one he gave Russell: “George, you rock! Future world champion.”
Few would disagree – and about Norris, too.