F1 Championships still in the balance
Updated: Dec 14, 2021
The 2021 Formula One season is braced for a sizzling finale with the titanic championship battle between Mercedes and Red Bull Racing set to go right down to the wire.
After three consecutive Grand Prix weekends, and with just two more races remaining this year, Sir Lewis Hamilton and Championship hopeful Max Verstappen remain neck-and-neck in the 2021 title chase.
Round 18 of 22 came in Mexico City two years since the last Grand Prix at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez, after being scrapped last year in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
At 2,200 metres above sea level the circuit has the highest altitude of all tracks on the F1 calendar, with the thin air tipped to be more favourable for Red Bull’s Honda power unit relative to Mercedes’ turbo engine.
Despite Red Bull expecting to dominate all weekend, Mercedes secured a surprise front row lock-out as Valtteri Bottas earned Pole position with teammate Hamilton alongside him, qualifying two-tenths off Bottas.
Verstappen started P3 with teammate and homecoming hero Sergio Perez also on the 2nd row of the starting grid.
George Russell received a 5-place grid penalty for gearbox changes after FP2, whilst the quartet of Lando Norris, Esteban Ocon, Lance Stroll, and Yuki Tsunoda were all at the rear of the starting grid for respective series' of power unit changes.
It did not take long for Red Bull to assert their dominance in Mexico City as Verstappen glided past the pair of Mercedes' at the first corner after lights out on Sunday.
Bottas was caught up in a kerfuffle with Daniel Ricciardo's McLaren which resulted in the Safety Car being deployed while the cars of both Bottas and Ricciardo picked up damage to send the pair right to the rear of the running order.
The Safety Car came in at the start of lap 5 as Verstappen led the pack into normal racing conditions, followed swiftly by Hamilton, Perez and Pierre Gasly. Verstappen was a class above the rest as Hamilton found himself battling more with local favourite Perez than with the title-challenging Red Bull of Verstappen's.
With the backing of a boisterous home crowd, Perez attempted to hunt down Hamilton and got within a few car lengths of the Silver Arrows but ultimately Hamilton managed to hold homecoming hero Perez at bay.
Delightful scenes at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez as Perez became the first Mexican driver to bag a podium finish at his home GP, as Checo ended P3 behind teammate & race winner Verstappen and runner-up Hamilton.
Verstappen crossed the finish line 16,5 seconds ahead of title rival Hamilton as the Red Bull driver extended his championship lead for the third race running to hold a 19-point advantage over Hamilton with four races remaining.
A dominant and clinical drive by Verstappen who took the race lead before the first turn on the opening lap, and he drove with terrific composure to take his 3rd victory in Mexico and a 9th chequered flag in 2021.
Perez secured a third consecutive double-podium for Red Bull (Turkey - USA - Mexico).
The high altitude proved influential after all, with three Honda-powered cars finishing in the top 4 places as Pierre Gasly ended P4 – a 7th top-6 finish for the Frenchman in 2021.
Ferrari duo Charles Leclerc & Carlos Sainz finished P5 & P6 to leapfrog McLaren in the Constructor's Standings, after Zak Brown's team collected a solitary point in Mexico City (Norris P10).
Ferrari overturned a 3,5-point deficit on McLaren from the US GP and the Prancing Horse sat 13,5 points above the papaya orange team with four races left.
Points on the board for a few F1 statesmen as the trio of Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Räikkönen, and Fernando Alonso finished P7, P8, & P9 respectively.
Eight teams registered points in Mexico City. Valtteri Bottas ended P15 but set the fastest time on the final lap of the race.
After a thrilling weekend in Mexico City, Mercedes led Red Bull by 1 point in the World Constructor's Championship.
A total 372,000 spectators checked into the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez over the 3-day race weekend.
After also being omitted from the revised 2020 calendar, Brazil made an awaited return to F1 in 2021. The sprint format returned for the third and final time this year after previous instalments in Rounds 10 and 14 in Great Britain and Italy.
On Friday evening Hamilton maintained his splendid form in sprint qualifying after his P1 and P2 starts at Silverstone and Monza, and the reigning world champion went 4-tenths quicker than Verstappen to line up on Pole for sprint qualifying.
However in the aftermath to quali, Hamilton was disqualified for a rear wing rule infringement, demoting the Mercedes to the back of the grid for the sprint race and promoting Verstappen to Pole with Bottas P2.
Hamilton also incurred a 5-place grid penalty for the Grand Prix after switching for a 5th internal combustion engine of the season, exceeding his original allocation.
In the 24-lap sprint on Saturday, Bottas immediately gained the lead after lights out and fended off Verstappen to win the sprint and claim Pole for Sunday's Grand Prix, crossing the line a mere second ahead of Verstappen's charging Red Bull.
Hamilton stole the show as he immaculately made up 15 places during the sprint to take P5, pushing the Mercedes back to P10 at Sunday's starting grid.
At lights out on Sunday, Bottas squandered the lead to Verstappen before Perez also got past the Finn to give Red Bull a 1-2 on the opening lap at Interlagos. Hamilton gained 3 positions on the opening lap and rose into P5 at the start of lap 3 after overtaking Sainz's Ferrari.
Hamilton soon passed the other Ferrari of Leclerc and on lap 5 Bottas let his teammate through to charge after the pair of Red Bulls out in front.
Hamilton was on fire and he swept clear of Perez at the start of lap 19, setting his sights on Verstappen 3,5 seconds up the road. Verstappen ran Hamilton off the track on lap 48, before the flying Silver Arrows eventually catapulted past the Red Bull on lap 59, as the crowd at the Autódromo José Carlos Pace were beyond ecstatic at Hamilton reaping the race lead.
Hamilton extended his distance to Verstappen behind him, taking the chequered flag 10 seconds ahead of his Championship foe. Hamilton made up 25 places over the weekend, starting dead last in the sprint before rising to P1 with 12 laps to go on Sunday afternoon.
Hamilton tightened Verstappen's WDC lead from 19 points to 14 points, while also enhancing Mercedes' gap over Red Bull to 11 points.
Bottas closed out the podium spots while Perez took P4 and set the quickest lap time of the race.
Ferrari collected 18 points as Leclerc and Sainz came in 5th & 6th.
Norris scored McLaren's only point in Brazil as the papaya team failed to reverberate their form from the previous sprint weekends after finishing P4 & P5 at Silverstone and taking a stunning 1-2 finish at Monza in September.
An estimated 172,000 spectators were in attendance over the São Paulo GP weekend.
With three rounds remaining of an unforgettable 2021 season, the paddock stopped over in the desert for the first of a triple header in the Middle East to cap off a season like no other.
First up was the 5,4km Losail International Circuit in Qatar, on the outskirts of the capital city of Doha.
Hamilton was quickest in all three qualifying sessions and the Briton took his 102nd Pole for the inaugural Qatar GP, almost half a second faster than Verstappen in final qualifying.
Just hours before lights out on Sunday the stewards handed Verstappen a 5-place grid drop after the Dutchman allegedly ignored double waved yellow flags in the final segment of qualifying on Saturday evening when Gasly suffered a puncture.
Bottas incurred a 3-place grid penalty for failing to decrease his pace under single waved yellow flags.
Verstappen was demoted to P7 with Bottas dropped to P6.
Alpine and AlphaTauri have been locked in a battle for P5 in the Constructor’s Championship and the two teams both returned positive qualifying results as Gasly came P3 and Alonso P4 in final quali.
With Verstappen and Bottas dropping down the starting grid, Gasly was promoted to the front row with Alonso inheriting P3.
Perez and Leclerc both failed to reach Q3 and the pair started P11 and P13 on Sunday.
365 days before the 2022 World Cup officially kicks off in Qatar, the FIFA WC trophy was on display for the Qatari national anthem prior to Sunday’s 57-lap GP.
Hamilton had a fine start off the line, as did Verstappen who instantly made up positions before car no.33 was sat in 2nd place by the start of lap 5, passing Gasly and Alonso on successive laps.
Verstappen reported front wing damage which hindered his ability to close in on Hamilton, and by lap 9 the Mercedes already held a 5-second lead over Verstappen.
In the other Red Bull car Perez surged up the order to occupy P4 by lap 16 and was up into the podium places on lap 29.
Bottas suffered a front-left puncture on lap 33 but the Finn managed to limp back to the paddock for his first pit stop of the race, dropping the Mercedes driver from P3 down towards the rear end of the pack, before Bottas retired from the race on lap 50 due to damage caused by the puncture.
Perez made a second stop on lap 42, relinquishing P3 and acquiring P7 upon rejoining the track, leaving the Red Bull to get past Stroll, Ocon and Norris but was unable to oust Alonso for the final step on the podium.
Hamilton maintained a comfortable lead throughout and stormed to the finish line to take his 102nd race win, emerging triumphant at a 30th different circuit.
Verstappen came in P2 and set the fastest lap of the race to nick an extra point off Hamilton.
Alonso finished on the podium for the 98th time in F1, the Spaniard's first top-3 finish in 105 races since Hungary 2014 with Ferrari.
Alonso's teammate Ocon ended P5 behind Perez, as Alpine left Qatar with a 25-point haul to give the French constructor some breathing space over AlphaTauri in the team standings.
Ferrari added another 10 points to their tally and made valuable ground over McLaren who claimed only 2 points in Qatar.
With just the two races remaining, everything is on the line with both World Championships still very much up for grabs. Ahead of the upcoming Grands Prix in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, Verstappen holds an 8-point advantage over Hamilton meanwhile Red Bull trail the Silver Arrows by a slender 5-point margin.