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Max Verstappen must marry smarts with speed to beat Lewis Hamilton to F1 title

Max Verstappen should have been enjoying a serene afternoon strolling around a luxury resort in Abu Dhabi on Thursday, basking in both the desert sun and the glory of the Formula 1 world title. Instead, he found himself caught in a sandstorm of questions from the world’s press about penalties, crashes and the potential for disqualification from the championship.

This is not how he should have been preparing for the season finale – Verstappen, by virtue of being by far and away the fastest driver on the grid throughout 2021, should be a guaranteed world champion. The fact that he and Lewis Hamilton are instead level on points as the most sensational battle the sport has produced in the 21st century reaches its conclusion this weekend is down to one simple thing: Verstappen might be faster, but so far in this battle between two men so drastically different from one another, Hamilton has been smarter.

In order to ascertain why we are where we are, we must trace this journey back to its origin. Before the 2021 season began, Formula 1 changed its regulations in an effort to curtail Mercedes’ dominance. So-called low-rake cars, ones which have a small rather than large inclination from front to back when viewed side on, were rendered slower by the changed to aerodynamics rules. Mercedes, alongside Aston Martin, runs a low-rake car, while all eight other F1 teams have high-rake designs.

That is why Red Bull Racing were so impressively quick at the front of the pack in pre-season testing at Sakhir, and is the primary reason Mercedes are facing an outside title challenge for the first time since their domination of the turbo-hybrid era began in 2014. Verstappen has run up an incredible record this season of finishing either first or second in every single race he has finished, aside from the Hungarian Grand Prix when he was forced to drive with significant wing damage after a first corner pile-up caused by an error from Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas.

That Red Bull and Verstappen have not just mounted but relished and maintained that challenge throughout the course of a season as intense as this after years spent languishing behind their rivals is testament both to the efficient running of their entire Formula 1 operation and also the immense talent of the young man tipped to be just that as soon as he made his debut for sister team Toro Rosso as a 17-year-old back in 2015.

Thanks to the combination of Red Bull’s significant step forward and the FIA’s purposeful decision to clip their wings, Mercedes have been contending with a level of pressure they have never faced before. Even in 2016, when Hamilton’s battle with Nico Rosberg at the top of standings turned nasty enough to ruin a deep friendship forged in childhood, both drivers were racing for the same team, so the pressure to bring upgrades to the car and work overtime to ensure success was nothing like it has been in 2021.

In pretty much every single interview he has given this week, Hamilton repeatedly thanked his team and everybody working at the Mercedes factory for helping him even have a shot at winning the title at Yas Marina, saying that “nobody would have expected” his car to still be within touching distance of the Red Bull after 20 of 21 races. That may be a touch hyperbolic, but it is certainly true that Mercedes and Hamilton needed a late resurgence to reach this point.

Verstappen with Red Bull team principal Christian Horner – the pair have forged a successful partnership

(Getty Images)

The seven-time world champion’s three consecutive race victories at Interlagos, Losail and Jeddah leading into the finale have seen the quality of his driving go up to a level far beyond anything he had been able to consistently produce at any previous point in the campaign. The fact that he has won two of those races after on-track controversies and collisions caused by Verstappen has only further underlined his resilience and patience.

Hamilton has not been as fast as Verstappen in 2021, but his ability to pick his moments expertly, take the pain and a points deficit when necessary, and always drive with the long-game in mind has led him to the exact same destination and standing: Yas Marina, and 369.5 points. Mercedes lead the contructors championship on 587.5 points, 28 clear of Red Bull in second.

Verstappen should have learned over the past few weeks that speed alone is not enough to win a world championship. If it was, he would have beaten Hamilton to the title a race or two ago.

Saudi Arabia felt like a tipping point for Verstappen, the race where his insistence on never yielding even when it is probably the best option in the long run shifted from aggression to reckless desperation. This was not hard battling or assertive defence but genuinely unsporting driving that descended into farce when he blatantly brake-checked Hamilton.

His qualifying lap too, while immensely fast up until the point he crashed, was ultimately an example of Verstappen pushing that touch too far when consolidation would have worked out for the best.

When Hamilton has not been able to compete with Verstappen’s pace, and there have been plenty of those occasions so far this season, where he has hunkered down and tried to take the best result he can in the hope of better days to claw the advantage back in future. When Verstappen has been directly confronted by Hamilton’s speed, though, the Red Bull driver has often forced him off circuit or made contact with him so often that it has inadvertently caused significant damage to his own season and brought out the worst in public relations from various Red Bull big-wigs.

Now both drivers are in an equally strong position to win the championship, despite plotting their routes from Bahrain to Abu Dhabi in considerably different ways. For Verstappen to come out on top he will need to harness the talent for choosing the right time to pounce that Hamilton has mastered on his way to his first seven titles, and which has given him a sniff of an eighth.

If Verstappen can combine his raucous pace with guarded composure, then the refulgent gulf moonlight could still glimmer off his championship trophy come Sunday night.

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