Why the Brazil GP Leaves us With More Questions Than Answers in Verstappen/Hamilton Title Fight
If the 2021 F1 championship has taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected...
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Sao Paulo, Brazil - A week after seizing further momentum in the championship, the 2021 Sao Paulo Grand Prix shows us just why Max Verstappen doesn't believe in momentum swings. After easily winning the Mexican Grand Prix, 7 days later Red Bull and Verstappen are on the opposite end of things after a resounding defeat to Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes at Interlagos. On a Sprint weekend in which off-track controversy made it look like Hamilton's title hopes were fading, the 7 time World Champion now heads to Qatar with a boost in morale after a dominant 101st career victory. The roller coaster weekend in Sao Paulo will make for great TV in next year's Netflix series but for now, it leaves us with many unanswered questions as we head to the final race in this triple-header. Where did that Mercedes pace come from all of the sudden? Is the car itself legal and can Red Bull find any answers for it in the final races to come? Well we're going to ask some of these questions and hopefully by the end we can provide you with some answers.
Where Did Hamilton's Pace Come From?
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At times it looked like an F1 car amongst a field of F2 cars but Lewis Hamilton's pace during the Sprint and Grand Prix was astounding. It looked like the dominant Mercedes of old which we haven't seen much of in 2021 as Hamilton breezed past everyone in his wake. Hamilton took the Sprint out of Sprint Qualifying on Saturday after erasing a massive grid penalty and finishing in 5th place. During the Grand Prix, he was already in the podium positions after just 5 laps after starting from 10th. From the onset of lights out, it looked inevitable that Hamilton would march on to victory and although Verstappen put up a decent fight, the Hamilton win was never in doubt. His drive on Sunday left many in the F1 world scratching their heads and asking, where did that come from? Not many expected to see Hamilton erase a 25 grid penalty through the weekend to end up winning the race, especially considering his title rival was starting in second. Speculation, rumors, and theories have been circulating ever since Friday as to what the answer is to Mercedes' sudden pace gain, especially on the straights. Mercedes have enjoyed a straight line speed advantage for quite a few races now but it was more evident than ever in Brazil. Hamilton did take a fresh Internal Combustion Engine for this Grand Prix and the jump in performance can be possibly explained by this change. Reports from Motorsport.com Italy are indicating that Mercedes have prepared a 'super engine' for Hamilton's final 4 races in a bid to grab the championship from Red Bull. This engine, which is Lewis' 5th of the season, would have a lifespan of only 2,500KM vs the normal 7,000km that is required for a standard engine. Upgrades on the power unit are not allowed in 2021 but the FIA do allow for modifications to the engines if those changes are functional to reliability and not performance. If Mercedes engineers were able to change the management settings of the unit to push it to the extremes, this would allow for Hamilton to run the engine in max performance without having to worry about managing power. And with this strategic change with 4 races left, the theory is that Hamilton and Mercedes can run this 'party mode' all the way until the end. If this in fact is Mercedes' strategy, it could be a hail mary masterclass to blitz the competition in the final few races that are more power sensitive. The upgraded topline speed also helps compensate for the bigger rear wings they've been running all year and the rear suspension trick doesn't hurt either. It all worked a treat in Sao Paulo as Hamilton was near the top of the speed traps and had a significant horsepower advantage over his Honda powered rival Max Verstappen. The speed delta between Verstappen and Hamilton in Brazil was 15.2 km/h at the measuring point at the end of the home straight.
Is the W12 Legal or Illegal?
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Because the pace of the W12 in the hands of Lewis Hamilton was so fast, naturally many F1 fans immediately started to question the legality of the car itself. At the moment, there is nothing to suggest that the new engine components, rear suspension, or rear wing of the Mercedes is against any FIA regulations. There was a lot of focus this weekend on the rear wing of Lewis Hamilton's car, so much so in fact that it cost Max Verstappen 50,000 euros just for touching it! Verstappen and Red Bull were alleging that Mercedes' rear wing was bending just like theirs used to earlier in the season. Senior officials from Red Bull were in and out of the FIA offices this weekend seeking clarification and asking questions about the details of their rival's car. But even Red Bull's Helmut Marko admitted post-race that they do not have enough evidence or facts for the bendy wing and that a protest would be the last resort. Even Marko was blown away by Hamilton's pace as he told Austrian TV post race; "We haven't seen an engine like that from Mercedes in recent years, as far as I can remember. Unbelievable. And it's only Hamilton's power unit. All the others are within the normal range. Mercedes have done a masterpiece to conjure up such a rocket at this crucial stage." Red Bull aren't finished yet with asking questions about Mercedes' car and they might lodge a protest just to seek clarification on what their rivals are doing. But at the moment, it seems like Mercedes have found an advantage within the rules that might give them the edge to close out the 2021 season. But let's wait and see what will happen as just like we saw in Brazil, even Mercedes aren't immune to breaking the rules of the technical regulations.
What Does this Mean for the Last 3 Races?
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After Lewis Hamilton was disqualified from qualifying, many of us started to think that Hamilton's title hopes were slipping away. But that has changed so quickly now that many are considering Red Bull's championship chances to be slim. If 2021 has taught us anything, it is to wait and see what happens as this season has been so unpredictable. The last 3 circuits of Qatar, Jeddah, and Abu Dhabi might favor Mercedes on paper, but do Mercedes or Red Bull tracks even exist anymore this season? There is no guarantee that Hamilton will carry over the same blistering pace into the final 3 races because if he does, even Christian Horner isn't optimistic about his teams chances saying "they can't race against that." If you're a Mercedes fan, your team's fortunes have just taken a turn for the better and you cannot wait for the middle-eastern swing to end the year. Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi in particular have some very power sensitive aspects and even the medium to high speed corners of Qatar will suit the Mercedes. On the other hand, if you're a Red Bull fan, you might be quick to panic and think it is all over but that is the furthest thing from the truth. Pace advantage or not, the fact remains that Verstappen leads the championship by 14 points with 3 races to go. That means that even if Max finishes P2 to Hamilton in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, they'll head to Abu Dhabi tied on points for the final race of the season. At this stage of the season, you would much rather be ahead on points because anything can happen in Formula 1. Let's also keep in mind that Qatar and Jeddah are completely new to Formula 1 and although on paper it might favor Mercedes, they could provide drivers and teams with many unknowns.
All in all, there are plenty of unanswered questions following the 2021 Sao Paulo Grand Prix. But one thing is a little clearer following the Grand Prix in Brazil and that is that the championship will in all likelihood go down to the final race in Abu Dhabi, and that would mark a perfect end to a thrilling 2021 championship