W Series drivers will again be writing regular columns for The Race on the 2021 Formula 1 season through this year.
With round one of the title battle done, Alice Powell looks at how things are shaping up between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen so far – and gives her take on a controversy F1 really needs to tidy up to make sure they can have a fair fight.
What a fantastic first race to have! I really hope we haven’t peaked already and that those battles are going to continue.
I felt the situation was unfortunate with how the fight at the end played out and that track limits became involved, and felt the situation really needed to be clarified after a high-profile incident like this.
It was helpful that after the race the FIA Race Director, Michael Masi, came out and explained that he had given clear guidance to the teams over the course of the weekend. As this is something that all racing drivers can come across, I think it is an opportune time for me to explain what happens in other series.
I’m very familiar with how track limits are policed in the British Formula 3 and Formula 4 championships from working with the drivers I coach in those series. At Silverstone, for instance, there’s an official watching who has ‘judge of fact’ authority, and at the MotorSport Vision circuits – like Brands Hatch – track limit sensors are triggered and a photo is taken. You initially get warnings, then a five-second penalty, and if you do it again, a 10-second penalty and so on.
So the rules for much younger drivers over here in the UK are pretty clear – you abuse track limits over a certain amount, and you’re going to get penalised.
It was good to see it dealt with and explained that while Lewis Hamilton did exceed them on many occasions without a penalty, the Sporting Regulations are clear that a lasting advantage overall must not be gained.
Obviously with Max Verstappen’s pass, the situation was clear. You know when you overtake a driver by going off the circuit, the usual rule of thumb is you have to give the place back.
But I do see Verstappen’s frustration in that to him, Hamilton was allowed to go over the track limits earlier in the race and nothing was done about it. Red Bull even radioed Verstappen to tell him to use more road because Mercedes was getting away with it.
Perhaps the circuit designers could just put gravel back in like your old-school circuits, because at somewhere like Mugello or even Imola – where F1 goes next – if you try to go over the limit of the track you’re in the gravel.
I do prefer the old-school tracks for that. Somewhere like the Brands Grand Prix track, where you know if you abuse the track limits, you’ll go off. I’m fortunate enough that I’ve raced around Monaco as well – if you run wide there, you’re going to pay a price. There’s just a different feeling, almost a different pressure, at a track where you know that if you make a mistake, you’re going to hit something.
VERSTAPPEN’S THINKING LIKE A CHAMPION
I could also totally see where Max was coming from with his initial message that he could just try to pull out a five-second gap and then take a penalty.
As a racing driver, in that situation you just want to build the lead and deal with it afterwards. Verstappen acknowledged that he’d overtaken off the track, he could be getting a penalty, and he just desperately wanted to try to get a gap on Hamilton and clearly felt he could have done it. Could he…? There wasn’t much of the race left, but who knows.
Obviously Red Bull and Verstappen were very disappointed, but I think they would take a lot away from the race weekend in terms of the change from where they were last year. Mercedes seemed genuinely shocked in the garage to have won the race. That should give Red Bull a lot of faith in what it’s capable of this year.
Verstappen insisted in his interview straight afterwards that he was still pleased with second because he was in the fight, whereas last year Red Bull wasn’t quite there.
It was quite a contrast from how he’d been on the radio, but when you’ve got that visor down and you’re on track and emotions are really running high, the red mist does come down. Every driver that’s raced would know exactly what I’m talking about – or even anyone who’s played sport in general.
But then he’s stepped out of the car, he’s had praise from the team for his drive, and he’s had chance to have a little think while waiting for the first interviews and it’s sunk in that it’s not too bad – he didn’t get the win, but Red Bull is much, much better positioned than this time last year.
It showed he’s now thinking like a driver who can win a championship. We’ve seen Verstappen make some crazy moves in the past when he was still learning and was perhaps a bit too keen to move forward. But he’s obviously learned a hell of a lot in what’s now six seasons in Formula 1.
HAMILTON ISN’T PAST IT
I’m sure Verstappen is going to be a world champion at some point. This year? Well, Hamilton putting in what I’d rate as one of his best ever Formula 1 drives sent Verstappen a clear message that even though he’s 13 years older, he’s still in his prime.
He’s always saying that he still feels good, but he really showed it with his display on Sunday, proving there’s no doubt about whether he’s still got the fight in him to try to hold off a young charger.
Lewis did make a mistake at Turn 10 that let Verstappen close the gap right up just before he tried to pass. For your confidence when you’re trying to chase someone down, it’s always nice to see them start to make a couple of mistakes. So that would have encouraged Verstappen.
However Hamilton then held off really intense pressure for those final few laps incredibly well. He held his own like a champion, even with a young charger absolutely desperate to get the win on his tail.
‘NUMBER TWOS’ NEED TO STEP UP – BUT PEREZ LOOKS MORE LIKELY TO
What I hope we can see now is Sergio Perez and Valtteri Bottas step it up so we have some four-way battles.
Perez would have been extremely disappointed to go out in Q2 but he admitted he was struggling with one-lap pace and that car is new to him and very different to his previous car. He’s got plenty more chances, and then his drive through the field all the way up from the pitlane to fifth was incredible. It’s really interesting to imagine what he might have achieved if he’d started with the leaders.
I can’t quite put my finger on why Bottas wasn’t really in touch again. Yes he was stuck behind Charles Leclerc for a few laps and later had the slow pitstop, but he still lost ground in between and must have been scratching his head afterwards. I really want him to do well – he seems a really top guy, he’s got a good mentality and he got the Mercedes drive on merit. But George Russell is still looming and could easily have that seat next year. That’s putting Bottas under so much pressure.
RED BULL’S FUTURE LOOKS INCREDIBLY BRIGHT TOO
There was a big sign in that race that Red Bull has another very impressive young talent coming through now too. Yuki Tsunoda had a great, great race. He did an awesome job to get two points on his F1 debut.
What impressed me most was how he was talking after the race, though. He seemed absolutely mesmerised that he was racing the likes of Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel and couldn’t believe he’d been side by side with them, which was so humble.
And yet even while having so much respect for those champions he’s racing, he was not at all scared to fire a move down the inside of them! Very brave, and very cool.