It didn’t look like that at the very first GP in Qatar. In fact, after Saturday’s qualifying, Verstappen seemed to be hanging on to the ropes, ready to receive a huge blow from Hamilton. Hamilton was no less than fourteenths of a second faster than Verstappen in qualifying; never before was the seven-time champion this year so much faster than the Dutchman in one round.
The speed in the Mercedes that propelled him to victory in Brazil last week turned out to be anything but a one-off. But it got worse for Red Bull. An hour and a half before the race, Verstappen was penalized from second to seventh place in the grid, because he had not slowed down enough in qualifying in a dangerous situation.
Horner under pressure
The title pressure was full at Red Bull, as was apparent from a statement by the normally calm team boss Horner. He called the marshall who waved the yellow flag that sent Verstappen his sentence “rogue”. It came to him on an official FIA racing federation warning.
The only one who kept his cool in that torrent of adversity was Verstappen himself. He started the race razor sharp, immediately won three places and had made up for his grid penalty within five laps. Hamilton had already driven too far away for a serious fight for victory at that point. Verstappen still took the point for the fastest lap.
Verstappen survived a weekend in Qatar in which he could have suffered a lot of damage. Hamilton experienced a similar race seven days earlier in Brazil, in which he brushed away 25 penalty spots for his victory.
According to four-time world champion Alain Prost, it showed that Hamilton and Verstappen are in a class of their own this season. The Frenchman was in Qatar as top man of the Alpine team, the former Renault. He still remembers how he fought for his first championship, just like Verstappen.
Prost was second in a row for two seasons before taking his first title in 1985. ‘You never know if you’ll get another opportunity like this in your career. That now also applies to Max. There’s a lot of pressure on him, but that doesn’t seem to bother him. He deserves to be a champion. That only applies to Lewis.’ He doesn’t know which driver will eventually take the cup, except that whoever is the deserved champion.
8 points lead
Red Bull CEO Helmut Marko spoke to the press after the race in Qatar. The driver he put in a Formula 1 car as a 17-year-old still had an excellent chance at the world title after a weekend in which it was impossible to find ‘the right balance’.
According to Marko, Verstappen needs one more win with two races to go. In addition, he is counting on Verstappen to be at least second in that other race; something that he has also managed to achieve throughout the season, except for his three appearances.
The difference between Hamilton and Verstappen is eight World Cup points. On paper, Verstappen can already take the world title at the next race, in two weeks in Saudi Arabia. For example, if Verstappen wins and drives the fastest lap, and Hamilton does not get further than sixth place. Conversely, Hamilton takes his eighth title if he wins the last two races.
No scenario is more unrealistic. For example, the brand new track in Jeddah Mercedes seems to be better. The cars would have one of the highest average speeds of the year, which plays into the hands of the strong Mercedes power unit. At the same time, there are many question marks towards those last races. For example, about the asphalt in Jeddah, which was recently laid and on which it is unclear how quickly the tires wear. And in Abu Dhabi, Mercedes won six times in a row, until Max Verstappen suddenly dominated there last year.
“In any case, nothing will go as predicted this year,” said Helmut Marko. “But at least we are ahead at the moment and will do everything we can to keep it that way. Everything has to be perfect. And if we don’t win, at least we have to beat Hamilton. It’s that simple.’