Are Hamilton/Mercedes Already Feeling the Pressure from Verstappen & Red Bull?
Mercedes are in the fight of their lives as Verstappen/Red Bull pour on the pressure at Imola
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Imola, Italy - Max Verstappen broke his Italian curse on Sunday by winning a chaotic Emilia Romagna Grand Prix in Imola. It was a masterclass victory from Verstappen in tricky conditions as he avoided big mistakes while others couldn't. One of those drivers who couldn't avoid a mistake was the seven time world champion himself, Lewis Hamilton. It came as a shock to many as it has been such a long time since we've seen Hamilton make an error in a race like that. Hamilton is usually flawless in his performances so seeing his W12 planted in the wall and reversing through the gravel trap was quite the sight to see. He was lucky to get the red flag courtesy of his teammate and potential future teammate and ended up fighting back to finish second behind Verstappen. The head to head is now all tied up at one and Hamilton still leads the championship by one point. But the uncharacteristic mistake from Hamilton might show us that the defending champions are already feeling the pressure from their rivals over at Red Bull.
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Now that we've seen the cars at two different tracks, we've gotten confirmation that Red Bull is a serious threat to the championship and that Mercedes have suffered losses courtesy of the new regulations. For the first time in a long time, we have two teams who are going to be fighting for the championship and Mercedes knows the Red Bull threat is for real. But are we already seeing the Red Bull pressure rattle Mercedes a little bit in the first two races? I think that is the case and this pressure is one that Mercedes are not used to, even in the days they were fighting Ferrari for the championship. Although Ferrari were a true threat in 2018 for example, you never felt like they rattled Mercedes as a team and they constantly tripped over themselves while trying to beat Mercedes. The 2021 championship seems to be a different story however as through two races, we've already seen Mercedes make more mistakes then they've done in all of the last two seasons. They had pitstop troubles both in Bahrain and Imola which cost Bottas and Hamilton respectively. Then at Imola, Hamilton was caught off guard by Verstappen's lightning start and the fight going into turn one cost him a bit of his front wing. The pressure from Max and Red Bull eventually led to Hamilton's off into the gravel trap while trying to pass the backmarkers. Hamilton had a heightened sense of urgency to pass the slower cars because he knew Verstappen had strong pace and the window of opportunity for victory was closing. The pace of the RB16B is forcing Hamilton and Mercedes to drive to the limit and push more than they've ever had which is making them more prone to errors. And it's not just Hamilton who is feeling the championship pressure either.
After only qualifying 8th, Valtteri Bottas' weekend didn't get any better as the lights went out in Imola. He struggled to make an impact in the tricky conditions and his pace was so off that he was almost passed by a Williams before it crashed into him and ended his race. Funny enough, it was this crash that salvaged Hamilton's championship lead at the end of the day. Bottas is under immense pressure in 2021, not only because his seat might be up for grabs but also because the second driver at Red Bull is now putting the pressure on him as well. The Sergio Perez effect might become a significant X factor in the championship battle between Hamilton and Verstappen. In the last two seasons, it has effectively been two Mercedes vs one Red Bull. No matter the stellar drives from Max Verstappen, Mercedes had it covered most of the time with their superior car and teamwork. But now in 2021, Red Bull have an elite driver in their second car and he's already making an impact. For the first time since Daniel Ricciardo was with the team, Perez out qualified Max Verstappen and was less than a tenth off of pole in only his second race with the team. Although the race didn't pan out for Perez, he's shown that his pace is strong and is capable of challenging for podiums and even race victories. Perez is not yet 100% comfortable with the car but in a few races time, he should be completely up to speed and extracting the most out of the RB16B. This is an added element to the title picture that Mercedes hasn't had to worry about in recent times. If Bottas doesn't step up his game, the script might be flipped and it will be two Red Bulls versus one Mercedes in 2021.
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Mercedes are certainly feeling the pressure early on this season but don't be fooled for a second that they will crumble under it. What makes this 2021 championship so scintillating is that Hamilton and Mercedes are being forced to find a higher level of performance in order to retain their crown. We know how great Hamilton has been in the last few seasons but this is a test that might define his legacy if he can defeat Verstappen in a close title race. Of all the great drivers Hamilton has gone against, it seems like Verstappen might be the only one to own a piece of mental real estate in Hamilton's head. Turn one at Imola is a great example of that and we've seen in many other races that Max is not afraid to get his elbows out. And if we learned anything about Nico Rosberg's time at Mercedes, this approach might be one of the only ways to rattle Lewis Hamilton. But can Verstappen ultimately do what Vettel, Bottas, and others have failed to do in this turbo hybrid era and that is defeat Hamilton? We've got a very long season ahead of us and hopefully the answer will come down to the final race in Abu Dhabi. There are a lot of interesting factors at play and don't forget this important aspect to this championship fight. The massive 2022 regulation changes are looming on all ten teams and the balance of power in F1's hierarchy is at stake. Mercedes and Red Bull will do everything to try and be champions in 2021 but at what cost to their future beyond this year? It all just adds even more drama into what is shaping up to be a memorable year for all F1 fans alike. We have two drivers in Verstappen and Hamilton that are at the peak of their driving talents and have exceptional machinery under them. Much like the great rivalries in the past like Schumacher vs Hakkinen and Senna vs Prost, sit back and enjoy what could be a championship battle for the ages.