For many fans of motorsport, the Formula One World Championships are seen as the pinnacle of racing, seeing the best drivers in the world compete in some of the fastest, most technically sound vehicles ever conceived. Legends and global icons are made in the sport, but despite its popularity, the money involved, and its ability to lure the top talents, it’s been a long time since Formula One offered a competitive season.
Only Nico Rosberg’s triumph by five points in 2016 comes close to a competitive season over the last eight campaigns, and that only saw him oust teammate Lewis Hamilton. Since 2013, with the exception of 2016, the closest battles came in 2017, when Lewis Hamilton only won by 46 points over Sebastian Vettel. This season, however, all of that has changed, and a truly competitive season is at hand, but why has this happened now?
A Strangely Competitive World Drivers’ Championship
Lewis Hamilton, in a Mercedes, has won each of the last four World Drivers’ Championships by a significant margin. His 46-point winning margin of 2017 was very much a course correction, having won the two titles prior to Rosberg’s stick-in-the-spokes campaign of 2016. In 2018, the British driver won by 88 points, and then by 87 points, until the shortened and mixed-up 2020 season saw a 124-point gap between him and the next-best.
This season started with much of the same, seeing Hamilton stand in the middle of the podium to land his third-successive Bahrain Grand Prix. Then Max Verstappen in the Red Bull claimed the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix, and suddenly, Hamilton had a true competitor. The reigning champion won in Portugal and Spain, but failed to win any of the next five races, with the BBC noting a costly mistake as allowing Verstappen to take the French Grand Prix – just before he doubled up in Austria.
Following a win at Silverstone, making it eight triumphs for Hamilton at the British Grand Prix, and a second-place finish at the Hungaroring on August 1, Hamilton edged ahead of the standings by eight points. This was only allowed by Verstappen retiring at Silverstone and coming ninth in Hungary. Prior to the season, on March 23, Formula1.com’s experts predicted a close battle between Red Bull and Mercedes, with the consensus being that they hope for a gloves-off battle throughout the season.
In previous seasons, this would have been mere optimism, but all onlookers are now seeing how close this fight is between the Dutchman and Englishman. As of August 4, the two can barely be split in the odds, with Hamilton narrowly ahead at -139 and Verstappen in pursuit at +100. Of course, there were still 12 races left at this point, and each race only splits first and second by seven points (25 to 18).
Why Is 2021 Proving to Be so Competitive in F1?
Along with performing all of the vital checks before each event, the FIA also governs what constructors can do to their cars each season. Due to the disruption of last season, they postponed the era of a new car from 2021 to 2022, which threw a spanner in the works of Mercedes’ three-year plan. So, for 2021, team boss Toto Wolff has been adamant that the car won’t be upgraded specifically for this year’s competition, with them still building towards a vehicle suited to win the 2022 World Championships.
Red Bull, on the other hand, has gone big on upgrading their car through the early stages. Furthermore, the seemingly minor alterations enforced by the FIA to start the campaign, such as the inwards-angled diagonal slice off of the floor, has helped the Red Bull’s build more than it has that of Mercedes.
Perhaps the most influential, and least quantifiable, aspect of the 2021 season that’s making it so competitive is the fact that it’s competitive. The sheer level of competition between Mercedes and Red Bull, Hamilton, and Verstappen, is causing both parties to make critical errors due to the pressure and frustrations. Verbal jabs have been thrown, they’ve been unforgiving on each race day, and continue to distract each other from the track ahead.
This additional tier of scrutiny and challenge has allowed for the likes of Sergio Pérez to cruise to victory in Baku and Esteban Ocon to take a superb triumph in Mogyoród. Hamilton’s frustrations have also been added to by the team’s focus on next season’s setup, as opposed to adding upgrades to allow him to compete better this season. For Verstappen, big point hits in Baku, Silverstone, and Hungary have only amped him up further.
Simply having a peer to Hamilton and Mercedes has greatly increased the spectacle of Formula One, with the increased pressure and frustration that comes with true competition making it all the more exciting.