The gloves are off

If they hadn’t already, then the gloves have now well and truly come off in the 2021 F1 title battle following a thrilling and controversial Sao Paulo Grand Prix. 

Lewis Hamilton bounced back from his disqualification from qualifying to complete a stunning comeback victory, passing championship rival Max Verstappen in the closing stages of an action-packed grand prix in Brazil.

There were fireworks both on and off the track, with much of the talk surrounding Verstappen’s controversial defensive move at Turn 4 in which he ran Hamilton off track and kept his position, before the Mercedes driver eventually found a way past. 

The release of missing front-facing camera footage from Verstappen’s car has prompted Mercedes to requested a right of review for the incident. A hearing has been set for later today (Thursday), where it will be determined whether the evidence is sufficient to warrant another look into the clash. 

Mercedes is effectively seeking retrospective punishment for Verstappen that could come in either the form of a time penalty added to the Sao Paulo GP result, or a potential grid drop at this weekend’s race in Qatar as it looks to dent the Red Bull driver’s title chances. 

Whether it is successful or not, Mercedes will have made a point and the ‘let them race’ philosophy will have been brought further into the spotlight as the championship protagonists prepare to do lock horns once more with the title race finely poised heading into the final three races. 

It could also be viewed as being tit-for-tat after Red Bull unsuccessfully lodged a right of review over Verstappen and Hamilton’s controversial collision at the British Grand Prix in July. 

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has declared that “democracy is over” in its battle with Red Bull after feeling unfairly treated by the stewards’ decisions over the Brazil weekend. It seems the fight has spilled over into all-out war. 

Will Red Bull protest Mercedes? 

Following Mercedes’ bid to get the Verstappen-Hamilton incident re-opened, could Red Bull retaliate by committing to lodging a protest against its rival’s rear wing? 

Despite being skeptical of how Mercedes has managed to achieve its “unraceable” straight-line speed advantage in Brazil, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner insisted after the race that his side won’t be launching any kind of protest just yet. 

“We won’t be protesting at this race,” Horner told Sky Sports. “It’s important to understand where the speed has come from. Obviously, they’ve had a new engine here, they’re running Monaco levels of downforce.

“When he passed Max he was close to 30 kilometers quicker on that lap so it’s just something that we need to understand. It’s down to the FIA to police the sport and to govern it. We trust in them and their tests and their investigation.”

Wolff effectively issued a ‘come and get us’ message by welcoming the prospect of a protest from Red Bull, stressing “the car is fully legal and we are happy to drive it everywhere.” 

Red Bull had already queried Mercedes’ rear wing with the FIA even before qualifying had taken place in Sao Paulo. It is understood the query was separate from the issue Hamilton was eventually thrown out of qualifying for. 

Will Mercedes’ right of review be the final straw that prompts Red Bull to respond with a full-blown protest? 

F1 heads into the unknown 

All of this drama comes at a time F1 is preparing to head to two completely new venues, adding a further element of intrigue and excitement into the mix. 

First up is a the first-ever Qatar Grand Prix and a race on the Losail International Circuit. Since it was built in 2004, F1 cars have never run around Losail, though the venue has become a regular host for MotoGP races. 

A completely new circuit will provide the teams with an additional challenge to overcome, with no previous data to refer back to. 

The track’s characteristics are expected to make overtaking difficult, which may place an added emphasis on the importance of qualifying. 

Aside from a kilometre-long main straight, the rest of the Losail circuit is made up of 16 turns in a twisty middle sector that could end up playing to the strengths of the Red Bull and perhaps negate Mercedes’ superior straight-line speed. 

F1 will remain in the Middle East for the final two races of the season, continuing with a brand new street venue in Jeddah, before rounding out the campaign with its usual finale in Abu Dhabi, albeit at a modified Yas Marina Circuit. 

Can AlphaTauri finally jump Alpine? 

With Ferrari pulling clear of McLaren and Mercedes extending its advantage over Red Bull at Interlagos, the closest championship fight remains Alpine’s squabble with AlphaTauri for P5. 

Alpine drivers Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso managed to work as a team to halt Pierre Gasly’s late charge, though the AlphaTauri ultimately battled his way through to finish ahead of his closest rivals in seventh. 

But a double points haul for Alpine ensured it matched AlphaTauri’s Brazil score to keep it ahead by virtue of its win at the Hungarian Grand Prix. 

It seems to be only a matter of time before AlphaTauri wrestles fifth in the constructors’ standings away from Alpine given that it has a clear pace advantage at most circuits. 

AlphaTauri will be hoping that Yuki Tsunoda can rejoin teammate Gasly in the fight in Qatar after enduring a miserable weekend in Brazil. 

This is a fight that could swing either will but will ultimately be settled by the team that maximises its potential across the final three rounds in the Middle East.