Max Verstappen holds out for now

Max Verstappen has a slender five-point advantage over Lewis Hamilton going into the Russian Grand Prix. But also faces a three-place grid penalty for a crash at Monza GP that ended the race for both the Dutchman and his title rival.

Published : Sep 25, 2021 12:50 IST

Home win: Red Bull driver Max Verstappen (C) sprays champagne on the podium next to Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton (l) and Valtteri Bottas after winning the Formula One Dutch Grand Prix at the Zandvoort racetrack, Netherlands.
Home win: Red Bull driver Max Verstappen (C) sprays champagne on the podium next to Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton (l) and Valtteri Bottas after winning the Formula One Dutch Grand Prix at the Zandvoort racetrack, Netherlands.

Home win: Red Bull driver Max Verstappen (C) sprays champagne on the podium next to Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton (l) and Valtteri Bottas after winning the Formula One Dutch Grand Prix at the Zandvoort racetrack, Netherlands.

The last two races heading into the summer break turned the title battle on its head when Max Verstappen crashed out in Britain and suffered heavy damage on the opening lap in Hungary. A 32-point lead for Verstappen turned into a deficit of eight points for Lewis Hamilton.

It was going to be crucial for Verstappen to turn the corner soon after the summer break with three races in as many weeks. At the end of the triple-header, the Red Bull Racing driver managed to take the lead again - albeit a slender five-point advantage - during an eventful three weeks.

The Belgian GP was the first of the triple-header and produced one of the most bizarre races ever in the history of Formula One.

Belgian GP - A farcical race

Verstappen took pole in wet conditions in the dying moments of qualifying to pip a surprise contender in Willaims’ George Russell from that position and it could prove to be one of the most crucial qualifying laps of the season because of what unfolded on race day.

While fans were expecting an exciting race on Sunday in wet conditions, what unfolded was a farcical situation that did not cover the sport in glory.

With torrential rain and visibility issues from the spray of the car ahead, the race could not be started at the scheduled time. After a half-hour wait and two formation laps behind the Safety Car, the start procedure was suspended with a red flag due to the worsening conditions.

The race eventually resumed after three hours, again behind the Safety Car for two laps before it was called off for good at the start of the third lap. This was done just to ensure at least half points could be awarded and be counted as a finished race instead of abandoning it altogether.

According to the rules, the results are to be taken based on positions from two laps before a race is red-flagged. This meant the race positions were taken at the end of lap one, making it the shortest Grand Prix in history.

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Since 75 per cent of the race distance was not covered, only half-points were awarded which meant Verstappen got 12.5 for his race win rather than the 25, thanks to his mighty qualifying lap that made him the pole-sitter.

The race also saw the Mercedes-bound Russell take his first F1 podium in second place ahead of Hamilton. In one of the most beautiful tracks on the calendar, F1 let itself and the fans down with a couple of laps behind the Safety Car just to constitute a race.

Dutch GP - Local boy revels

From the Ardennes of Belgium, the F1 circus then moved to the coastal town of Zandvoort for the return of the Dutch GP for the first time since 1985. As expected, the fans of local boy Verstappen thronged the venue and went about firing their orange flares to support the Dutchman and the youngster did not disappoint.

Verstappen took pole on Saturday from Hamilton by just 0.038 of a second and when the race started, he sprinted away immediately to build up a steady lead.

Before the first round of pit stops, Verstappen led Hamilton by 3.5 seconds when the latter stopped on lap 20. The Dutchman stopped a lap later and the only chance for Mercs in the race was to use Valtteri Bottas, who was running a long first stint, to hold up Verstappen so that Hamilton could catch up and pass or at least try to do an undercut.

But Verstappen on new tyres made quick work of Bottas, now running on old tyres with which he started, and there was nothing the Mercs could do to challenge the local hero for the rest of the race as he took the lead of the championship again.

Italian delight: McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo (R) of Australia and Lando Norris of Great Britain celebrate finishing 1-2 in Monza, Italy.

Italian GP - Ricciardo tastes glory

The final race of the triple-header took the teams to the ‘Cathedral of Speed’ at Monza for the Italian GP. This was the second race to trial the sport’s new Sprint Qualifying format after the British GP, where a half-hour race on Saturday determined the grid for Sunday’s race.

The reason for this format was to create a bit of randomness to the grid for Sunday’s race and it delivered on the front with McLaren winning its first race since the Brazilian GP 2012 as Daniel Ricciardo led home ahead of teammate Lando Norris and Bottas.

But how such a result came about made it one of the most exciting races of the season with two title protagonists Hamilton and Verstappen once again coming together.

Halo saves the day: Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton of crash during the Italian GP at Autodromo di Monza.

It started with the Mercedes drivers Bottas and Hamilton locking out the front row for the Sprint Qualifying with Verstappen lining up third. However, Hamilton had a poor getaway and quickly slipped down the order and could only finish fifth on the road while Bottas won the event ahead of Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo.

Bottas had taken a new power unit outside of his allotted three for the season and had to start from the back of the grid, allowing Verstappen to take pole for Sunday’s race. But this time, it was Ricciardo who had a stellar start as he took the lead and controlled the race even as Verstappen tried everything to get ahead while Hamilton was stuck behind the other McLaren of Lando Norris.

The McLaren’s straight-line speed was enough to keep it ahead of the Red Bull. Finally, on lap 23, Ricciardo stopped followed by Verstappen. It was here that the race started to take a decisive turn as the Red Bull driver had an extremely slow stop due to a signalling error and was forced to be stationary for 11 seconds, instead of the usual three-second stop.

Sensing an opportunity to get ahead of his title rival, Hamilton stopped on lap 25 but he also had a slow four-second stop which meant he came out of the pits alongside Verstappen.

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Heading to turn one, Hamilton held his line in the middle of the track even as Verstappen got alongside him but had no space on his right as Hamilton turned to take the corner. This pushed Verstappen onto the kerb which launched his car and landed straight on top of Hamilton's car, taking both drivers out of the race.

It was a scary crash as the Red Bull’s rear-wheel hit the roll-hoop structure of Hamilton’s car and could have been worse if not for the halo device doing its job of protecting the latter’s head.

While Verstappen added two points to his lead in Italy, he was adjudged to be predominantly to blame for the crash with Hamilton and was handed a three-place grid penalty for the Russian GP.

Without the two fastest drivers, the McLarens managed to coast home without trouble, ending their nine-year victory drought to secure a popular win.

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