Formula One: Will there be a change in guard in 2021?

Red Bull and Mercedes are equal in terms of qualifying and race speed after the first two of 23 scheduled races of the season, but whether the story plays out as it did in 2005 is something we’ll have to wait for.

Race winner Max Verstappen celebrates on the podium after the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix in Imola, Italy. The Dutch racer has still not led the F1 drivers’ standings; he is a point behind Hamilton, who is on 44 courtesy his fastest lap in Imola.   -  Getty Images

Max Verstappen holds nearly every youngest-ever record in Formula One. The youngest driver to take part in a Grand Prix weekend at Suzuka in October 2014, less than a week after turning 17. The youngest to start a race at 17 years, 166 days at the 2015 Australian Grand Prix. The youngest to score points in Malaysia two weeks later. The youngest to win a race at 18 years, 228 days at the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix — on his Red Bull debut after 23 races with its junior Toro Rosso team — on a day he also became the youngest to lead a lap in F1 as well as set the fastest lap of a race.

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The son of former racer Jos Verstappen, who was seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher’s teammate when the German won his first title in 1994, Max was touted as a future star well before he first sat in an F1 car. But the Flying Dutchman has — incredibly — never led the drivers’ standing in six complete seasons. In 2019 and ’20, he was left chasing the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas for second place after Lewis Hamilton sped off into the distance in the better car.

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Consequently, Verstappen missed out on the biggest youngest-ever record of them all — that of world champion. (Interestingly, the three youngest world champions in history — Sebastian Vettel at 23 years, 134 days in 2010; Hamilton at 23 years, 300 days in 2008; and Fernando Alonso at 24 years, 59 days in 2005 — are currently part of the grid.)

After turning 23 on September 30 midway through the truncated 2020 season, Verstappen is now closer than he had ever been to challenging Hamilton, who is seeking a record-breaking eighth world drivers’ title this season at age 36.

After seven years of utter domination of the highest level of motorsports, Mercedes finally seems to have a true challenger this year in Red Bull Racing, the strongest team in pre-season testing at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir. Verstappen, who topped the overall time sheets after three days of testing and was the only driver to go below 1:29.0, however, had a caveat: “...it doesn’t give you any guarantees, so we’ll find out throughout the first race weekend where we are.” And find out he did at the season opener at the same track, where he was sandwiched between Hamilton and Bottas on the podium after starting on pole ahead of the two Mercedes drivers.

Hamilton described the win in Sakhir as a blessing in disguise and a chance to prove people wrong, but his victory was clouded by what seemed like a discrepancy in the application of the rules with regard to him and Verstappen.

The main talking point after the race was why the reigning world champion was allowed to get away with exceeding the turn four track limits time and again, while Verstappen was warned after an infringement when overtaking Hamilton. Under Rule 27.3 of the F1 Sporting Regulations, Verstappen was deemed to have gained an advantage because he went off-track at turn four during his move on Hamilton and was told to return the position almost immediately. But Hamilton was seen straying beyond the white line at the same corner numerous times earlier in the race before his team told him of a warning from race control. According to race director Michael Masi, Hamilton’s case fell under section 21 of the Race Director’s Notes, which are issued before every race and deal with track-specific matters. On the Friday before the race, Masi had told the drivers that the track limits at turn four would be monitored in practice and qualifying, but not during the race. And that was that.

Three weeks later, Hamilton took pole at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix in Imola, Italy, ahead of the Red Bull cars of Sergio Perez and Verstappen. Starting on a wet track, Verstappen stormed out of third and had the lead going into the first braking point at Tamburello, closing the door on Hamilton as the world champion tried to go around the outside of the chicane, before the safety car came out at the end of the first lap after a Nicholas Latifi crash.

Verstappen and Hamilton maintained their order at the front till the former pitted to change from intermediate wet-weather tyres to slicks on lap 27, with the world champion following him in on the next. Four laps later, Hamilton slid off when attempting to lap the Williams of George Russell at Tosa and damaged his front wing, seemingly putting him out of contention of a podium finish and among the lower points-scoring positions. But an incident between Russell and Bottas on the very next lap that led to the race being suspended was the stroke of luck needed by Hamilton, who pulled off an inch-perfect recovery drive to finish second.

Verstappen showed poise and maturity — in addition to his usual derring-do — in taking his 11th victory in Formula One, a performance that led F1 Digital’s Will Buxton to ask whether Imola 2021 was “a symbolic changing of the guard in F1,” akin to the battle between a 23-year-old Alonso and a 36-year-old, seven-time world champion Schumacher at the same track 16 years previously.

Verstappen has still not led the F1 drivers’ standings; he is a point behind Hamilton, who is on 44 courtesy his fastest lap in Imola. But that’s the closest the Dutchman has ever been. Red Bull and Mercedes are equal in terms of qualifying and race speed after the first two of 23 scheduled races of the season, but whether the story plays out as it did in 2005 is something we’ll have to wait for as the F1 season heads towards its latest-ever finish in the second week of December.