At the start of every Formula 1 season for what feels like the past decade, we’ve asked whether anybody is capable of preventing Englishman Sir Lewis Hamilton from winning yet another driver’s World Championship. Every year, we find out that the answer is “no.” For year after year, we’ve watched as Hamilton has chased down and then equalled German legend Michael Schumacher’s seemingly unassailable record of seven world championships. Every other record Schumacher ever held, Hamilton has already broken. The one season in the past eight that Hamilton didn’t win the world championship, his Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg claimed the honour instead. Hamilton and his team have been utterly dominant.
For the past five years, Dutch driver Max Verstappen has marked himself out as the driver most likely to claim Hamilton’s crown. In his late teens, he was too aggressive, immature, and error-prone to capitalise on his obvious talent. More recently, something else has stopped him from giving Hamilton a serious run for his money. In some seasons, Red Bull’s car hasn’t given him everything he needs. In others, his teammate in the other Red Bull wasn’t good enough to provide him with tactical and strategic assistance. There were years when Hamilton and Mercedes were simply too good, and nobody could have caught them. This season, everything is starting to look different. As evidenced by Verstappen’s cool, calm win in France, he finally appears to have the edge on his rival.
Verstappen is unquestionably driving better than ever, but other things have gone in his favour, too. This year’s Red Bull is far more competitive than last year’s Red Bull. In Sergio Perez, he has a teammate who’s capable of beating Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas and posing a threat of his own to Hamilton. Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon, the previous incumbents of that second Red Bull seat, weren’t capable of that. When you have two drivers in the top three or four positions, there are games you can play with your rivals. You can force them to respond to sudden pit stops. You can try to trick them into running longer or second-guessing when you might come in. Aside from Verstappen’s excellence, that’s been the biggest factor this year – and it’s revealing cracks in Mercedes’ race strategy.
The biggest crack is undoubtedly between Mercedes and Valtteri Bottas. In years gone by, Bottas generally finished second to Hamilton whenever both cars finished the race. On the rare occasions he didn’t finish second (and disregarding his very occasional wins), he’d be third. People often wondered how much of that was down to Bottas and how much of it was down to his car. They rationalised that if Hamilton was finishing so far ahead of Bottas in the same car, Bottas might start finishing further down the order if other teams were able to close the gap. They were right. Bottas was nowhere in Monaco, nowhere in Azerbaijan, and a distant fourth behind Verstappen, Hamilton, and Perez in France. There’s currently rampant speculation that the Finn won’t be at Mercedes next season. Among some fans, there are suggestions that Bottas’ decline is so pronounced that it would be better to replace him with George Russell of Williams at the mid-season stage.
With Bottas tailing behind the front three, Mercedes have needed to be sharper than usual with pit lane strategy to give Hamilton an extra advantage. That hasn’t happened. Behind the scenes, Red Bull have been poaching engineers and other staff away from Mercedes for months. That might be starting to affect the quality of the decision-making process at Mercedes. In France, Red Bull and Verstappen managed to win even though Verstappen took an additional pit stop compared to Hamilton and Bottas. Red Bull knew that fresh tyres would give the Dutchman a priceless advantage during the final few laps as Hamilton’s crumbled. Mercedes gambled on Hamilton being able to nurse the car hope with bald tyres. As is becoming a theme this season, Red Bull got it right, and Mercedes got it wrong.
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In their DNA, Mercedes don’t appear to be gamblers when it comes to pit strategy – and yet sometimes they need to. You won’t win anything from the F1 GP online slots game at Rose Slots CA if you’re not prepared to take a gamble occasionally, and nor will you win anything in the real sport it’s based on. Perhaps the strategy team at Mercedes should check that online slots game out and see if they can learn anything from it. Twice in France, they had the opportunity to get a jump on Red Bull with smart pit lane work, and twice they failed to do it. The jackpot at that online slots website would have stayed firmly with the game’s owner if Mercedes were playing, just as all the trophies and the glory went to Red Bull when the French Grand Prix was over.
Hamilton didn’t expect to inherit the lead of the race during the first lap, but he did when Verstappen ran wide. From there, he could have won. Mercedes has to choose whether or not to attempt an undercut on Verstappen by pitting Hamilton first. They dawdled on the decision for too long, and Red Bull called Verstappen in for the undercut. It worked. By the time Hamilton pitted, he was stuck behind Verstappen. Later in the race, when it became apparent that a one-stop strategy might not be optimal for the track, Hamilton got on the radio to implore his team not to let Red Bull undercut them again with a pit stop and tyre change. The request fell on deaf ears. Red Bull did precisely that, and the result became inevitable. To his credit, even Bottas called the strategists out for failing to listen to him about a second stop. Both Mercedes drivers knew how the race would turn out. For whatever reason, Toto Wolff and the strategists refused to believe them until it was too late.
Momentum is now with Verstappen. He has the lead in the driver’s championship, two wins in the past three races, and a team that gets the big calls right. Hamilton is losing ground and probably losing faith in his team just as quickly. Anything could happen between now and the end of the season, but we could be able to see a watershed moment in Formula 1 history.