Lewis Hamilton knew how the Styrian Grand Prix was going to go for himself and his team long before lights went out to start the race on June 27th. He’d seen everything he needed to see during qualifying. Although he managed to get himself into second position on the grid by almost driving the wheels off his Mercedes, he couldn’t get close to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in pole position. After the end of qualifying, a despondent Hamilton told journalists that he thought the Red Bull car was a quarter-second faster on the straights. He was almost exactly right.
A quarter of a second doesn’t sound like much time. In any normal circumstance, it isn’t. In Formula 1, however, a quarter of a second is everything. The Styrian Grand Prix had seventy-one laps. If a driver loses a quarter of a second each lap to an opponent, that’s a difference of 17.75 seconds by the end of the race. Hamilton finished 35.74 seconds behind Verstappen, having taken an extra pit stop for a tyre change so he could steal the point for the fastest lap. Had he not done that, the gap would have been around seventeen seconds. Hamilton couldn’t have done any better. He matched Verstappen turn for turn and move for move. He finished 47 seconds ahead of his teammate Valtteri Bottas even with that additional pitstop, but he couldn’t close the gap to Verstappen.
For both Hamilton and Mercedes, this must be beginning to feel a little like Groundhog Day. Perhaps, in reality, it feels more like placing losing bet after losing bet on the F1 Grand Prix online slots game. You’re still spending money and going through the same motions, but you’re not getting the rewards. Maybe there’s a lesson they could take from that online slots game, though. Your luck can change when you least expect it, even when your methodology remains the same. From a player input point of view, there’s no difference between a winning spin and a losing spin when you’re on the Rose Slots Canada website. The difference comes when the mathematics that drives online slots decide it’s time you won something. Mercedes can’t magically make their car faster, but they might be overdue a slice of luck. It might come next time around when the teams and drivers return for a second go around this track.
For the past few years, Verstappen has been the heir apparent to Hamilton. Christian Horner has treated him as Red Bull’s number one driver since his late teens, and he’s now come of age despite still being only 23. It’s long been assumed that when Hamilton either retires or begins to fade, Verstappen will assume his mantle and begin to dominate the sport. His reign looks increasingly likely to begin this year – and it isn’t because Hamilton is fading. Every race, Hamilton and Verstappen finish so far ahead of third-place that they may as well be driving in a different competition. For all the obvious talent elsewhere on the grid, nobody – including their own teammates – can get anywhere near them. They’re two all-time great drivers at the peak of their powers, but only one of them knows what it’s like to be a world champion. Hamilton has had that honour seven times. Verstappen is still waiting for his first. That wait might finally be over at the end of 2021. Hamilton has lost none of his old skill or guile, but Verstappen finally has a car that enables him to wrest the crown away regardless.
Elsewhere in the race was another driver experiencing their own version of Groundhog Day, and it was Hamilton’s fellow Brit George Russell. Russell overachieves in qualifying every time with his feeble Williams and managed to get as far up the running order as 8th place before his car simply gave out on him. Russell asked for more from the car than it could give to him, and it responded by developing a pneumatic fault that forced his early retirement. Russell is still yet to get a single world championship point as a Williams driver, and it’s starting to feel like he might be cursed. He’s leaps and bounds ahead of teammate Nicholas Latifi when it comes to raw talent but never gets the rewards that his talent so richly deserves. Those rewards might never come at Williams, but there’s an ever-growing likelihood that he’ll get them elsewhere in 2022.
The general expectation in Formula 1 is that George Russell will replace Valtteri Bottas at Mercedes next season and that Bottas will be left without a seat. If it happens, the Finn will have nobody to blame but himself. He finished third in Austria – a distant third behind Verstappen and Hamilton, but still on the podium. It was probably his best race of the season, and yet he still had to be told repeatedly by his team to push himself and drive faster. Such instructions shouldn’t be necessary for a Formula 1 driver in a Mercedes. Bottas still views himself as a potential world champion, but he’s never truly shown the potential to become one. It’s difficult to imagine him getting a “number one” seat with another team, and even harder to imagine him being a threat to the world championship even if he did. Daniel Ricciardo is struggling this season at McLaren. There’s little reason to believe that Bottas would do any better. Badly adrift of his teammate and looking increasingly frustrated before, during, and after races, this might be Bottas’ last season in the sport.
It’s too early to say that Red Bull and Verstappen have the world and constructor’s championships wrapped up. There’s a mid-season break to come and the chance that Mercedes will somehow find an extra half-second of pace during that break. The gap is also small enough that a single DNF for Verstappen could put Hamilton back on top of the leaderboard again. Nothing is done or dusted, and there’s a lot of racing to go. If Verstappen maintains this kind of form, though, he may be out of reach for Hamilton no matter what the reigning world champion’s team can do to help him.