The 2021 title run-in promises to be one of the most exciting conclusion to a Formula 1 season in years. 

After trading the championship lead no fewer than six times across the opening 16 events of the season, six points is all that separates Max Verstappen from Lewis Hamilton going into the remaining six rounds. 

Mercedes has some breathing space in the constructors’ battle, boasting the biggest lead seen so far this year with a 36-point advantage over Red Bull. 

But with the competitive picture almost too close to call between Mercedes and Red Bull - and with momentum expected to swing back and forth across races in the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi - fine margins will likely determine the outcome of this year’s championship. 

It could also be decided by several factors outside of the two title protagonists’ control. 

Reliability and bad luck

XPB_1109855_HiRes.jpg

Reliability is the biggest concern lingering over both Mercedes and Red Bull heading into the closing stages of the season. 

This is especially the case for Mercedes, with the team admitting it is trying to “contain” an issue with its internal combustion engine that forced Valtteri Bottas to use a new engine at back-to-back races at Monza and Sochi.

Hamilton was hit with a 10-place grid penalty last time out in Turkey after Mercedes fitted a fourth ICE into his car in the hope it will carry him through the rest of the campaign and reduce the risk of a failure. 

A DNF for either Hamilton or Verstappen at this late stage of the season would be catastrophic and likely title-defining. 

Verstappen was also forced to take a new engine in Russia, but this was the result of accident damage caused in his race-ending crash in the British GP following contact with Hamilton, rather than due to reliability worries. 

The Red Bull driver has suffered two retirements this year - his crash at Silverstone and a tangle in the Italian GP that also wiped out Hamilton for his only DNF of 2021 to date. 

Verstappen also failed to take the chequered flag in Azerbaijan following a dramatic tyre blowout, but was classified 18th after completing over 90% of the race distance. 

XPB_1090630_HiRes.jpg



The role of the ‘no.2’ drivers

The fate of the world championship could ultimately be decided by Verstappen and Hamilton’s teammates. 

Hamilton’s Mercedes stablemate Valtteri Bottas finally got off the mark in 2021 with his first victory in over a year last time out at the Turkish GP with a dominant performance in wet conditions. 

It was an important result for Mercedes, enabling the team to extend its lead over Red Bull. Bottas also prevented Verstappen from scoring eight extra points on a day Hamilton was consigned to a recovery effort. 

Bottas kept Verstappen behind with a convincing drive that was a stark contrast to his rather feeble attempt to slow the Dutchman’s progress in Russia, underlining Bottas’ frustrating inconsistency this year. 

But ever since Bottas’ Alfa Romeo deal was announced ahead of the Italian GP, no other driver has scored more points than the Finn, whose upswing in form comes at the perfect time for Mercedes’ championship aspirations. 

2966093.0064.jpg

But there could be equally good news for Red Bull if Sergio Perez’s impressive drive to the podium in Turkey proves to be a turning point in what has been a challenging first year alongside Verstappen. 

Perez followed Verstappen home in third place in Turkey and also delayed Hamilton’s charge with a mighty defence. Red Bull will be hoping he can continue to get in the mix at the very front more often in the final races to help boost Verstappen’s title bid. 

Any points - including for setting the fastest lap - that either Bottas or Perez can take away from their teammate’s respective rivals will be crucial. 

A competitive midfield 

Could an improving McLaren and Ferrari also have a say in the destiny of this year’s world title? 

Turkey aside, McLaren has been in contention for both pole positions and victories in recent races and has some circuits coming up that should suit its 2021 car and potentiality provide Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo with the opportunity to mix it up towards the front. 

Monza, where Ricciardo landed McLaren’s first victory in nearly 10 years and Norris held up Hamilton in both the sprint and main grand prix, was a prime example of how McLaren could disrupt the title battle, albeit at a circuit where overtaking proved to be particularly difficult. 

2949269.0064.jpg

Ferrari have also come on strong as the year has progressed, especially since introducing its upgraded power unit in Russia. 

If Norris, Ricciardo, Charles Leclerc, Carlos Sainz and potentially even AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly can extract the maximum from their cars on a rare off day for either Verstappen or Hamilton in qualifying, they could prove to be a frustrating - and potentially costly - obstacle.