Mark Hughes: Analysing how Max Verstappen is handling his first title battle as final duels await

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What his Austin victory under pressure from Lewis Hamilton told us about where Max Verstappen is at entering the final stages of his quest for a maiden F1 title; Watch the Mexico City Grand Prix weekend live on Sky Sports F1 from Friday at 5pm

Last Updated: 03/11/21 11:30am


There were a couple of occasions in Austin where Max Verstappen’s big picture grasp of both his own race and his championship challenge were very evident.

After making his first stop early in an attempt at grabbing track position from Lewis Hamilton, he was on the radio immediately afterwards reminding the team that it should bring team-mate Sergio Perez in soon, so as to apply undercut pressure on the Mercedes, preventing it from staying out and getting a strategy advantage.

Probably the team was about to do exactly that anyway, but it showed how aware Verstappen was even in the moment of guiding his car around the track.

Late in the race, he was suggesting they bring Sergio in again, this time to deprive Hamilton of the point for the race’s fastest lap. That single point could turn out to be crucial at the end of the year. On this occasion Red Bull chose not to follow his suggestion, feeling that to deprive Perez of third place would have been ‘brutal’.

But, again, it painted the picture of Verstappen’s faculties being on full alert.

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His performance this year has been close-to-immaculate, invariably squeezing the maximum from the car in qualifying, error-free in the races and with a sophisticated grasp of his tyre performance and its implication upon race tactics.

He knew exactly the sort of race which was ahead of him as soon as he made that early first undercut on Hamilton – one where he would be defending late in the race. He marshalled his resources with perfect judgement in anticipating the late onslaught of Hamilton, who was on tyres eight laps newer around a track at which even the hards were degrading at over 0.1s per lap.

Five races in six weeks: Take a fast-paced look at what still awaits in this F1 season when the world titles will be decided. All live on Sky Sports F1.

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Five races in six weeks: Take a fast-paced look at what still awaits in this F1 season when the world titles will be decided. All live on Sky Sports F1.

Five races in six weeks: Take a fast-paced look at what still awaits in this F1 season when the world titles will be decided. All live on Sky Sports F1.

Austin was a typical Verstappen 2021 performance.

He has for many years been very obviously capable of fighting for a championship with a sufficiently quick car beneath him. This year he has had that for the first time and is duly delivering. Yes, his points lead would be greater had he not clashed with Hamilton at Silverstone – and regardless of whose fault you consider that incident to have been, the bald fact remains that had he not chosen to fight out the corner he’d now have a more comfortable points lead than he has.

But that isn’t how he races. His approach in such 50/50 situations has been binary – he will always commit to the move. His rival Hamilton has sometimes done so, other times not, seemingly according to the bigger championship picture.

Watch how Lewis Hamilton overtook title rival Max Verstappen in Austin after making a brilliant start to the United States GP.

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Watch how Lewis Hamilton overtook title rival Max Verstappen in Austin after making a brilliant start to the United States GP.

Watch how Lewis Hamilton overtook title rival Max Verstappen in Austin after making a brilliant start to the United States GP.

At the race start in Austin, Verstappen tried to intimidate Hamilton to yield by leaning heavily on him but it was never a winnable position. Hamilton’s start from the inside was good enough that Verstappen was never ahead by the time he got to the other side of the track from his pole position.

Unlike at Silverstone or Monza it was never a 50/50 situation in that he could never force Hamilton into having to make the choice of yielding or crashing – Hamilton’s route through was already there by the time Verstappen arrived alongside him.

So what we saw in the opening seconds of Austin wasn’t some new Verstappen softer approach; it was just an attempt at intimidation which he recognised had not worked and which he wasn’t in a position to follow up on.

Sky Sports F1's Nico Rosberg has his say on Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton's title fight ahead of five races in six weeks to finish the season.

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Sky Sports F1’s Nico Rosberg has his say on Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton’s title fight ahead of five races in six weeks to finish the season.

Sky Sports F1’s Nico Rosberg has his say on Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton’s title fight ahead of five races in six weeks to finish the season.

If the championship is decided by anything other than the respective performance and reliability of the two cars in the remaining races, it is likely to be in some sort of incident between the two contenders.

They can both be relied on to squeeze everything from their cars, there has been absolutely no sign that Verstappen is allowing any title pressure to infiltrate through to his choices in the car – and Hamilton has been here before.

But there just might be a situation where in order to win the title at the last gasp, one of them HAS to force a move upon the other because not to do so will guarantee losing. In such a situation the other CANNOT yield, for the same reason.

The fight for the titles: How it stands

Drivers’ Points
1) Max Verstappen 287.5
2) Lewis Hamilton 275.5

It would be a controversial way for the contest to be decided – but so tight is it between them, so far clear do they tend to be of all the others, that it would be no surprise. If Verstappen loses this title it won’t be because of anything he has lacked.



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