Lewis Hamilton has deservedly taken all the plaudits for securing a record-equalling seventh world title off the back of a phenomenal 2020 season. Hamilton has claimed 10 wins from just 14 races, is 110 points clear in the standings, and has not retired from a race in over two years. Hamilton has yet to pen a new deal with Mercedes but says he will “get it done” in the coming weeks to continue his career. Given his current standing and ability, both on the track and off it, as well as regulatory stability, is there any chance of a title fight in 2021?
Hamilton suffers illness, injury or other
Hamilton’s longevity is a supreme strength as he has never missed a race since stepping up to Formula 1 in 2007. No-one ever wants to see a sportsperson injured, and fortunately in the current era in Formula 1 the risk is lower than ever, with no title contender suffering a major injury since Michael Schumacher’s broken leg in 1999. A driver has not missed a race through injury – rather than illness – since Fernando Alonso in 2016 and long may that streak continue. While recent developments regarding a Covid-19 vaccine are enormously encouraging the risk of contracting the virus remains – as Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll can attest. Hamilton has lived a sheltered life in 2020 to minimise the danger but, as with all of his contemporaries, the risk remains, with a positive test at the wrong moment meaning a driver will have to miss a race. Another factor could be the penalty points situation. He will be on six points until next July, meaning he must negotiate the (as currently planned) opening 10 rounds of the year without reaching the limit of 12, else he will be suspended for one event. No-one has yet reached 12 points, and Hamilton is one of the cleanest racers, but transgressions such as impeding or ignoring yellow flags can bring a penalty points sanction.
Hamilton gets a dose of misfortune
The Hamilton/Mercedes combination has had a level of reliability almost unparalleled in the history of Formula 1. Only once in the last four years has Hamilton failed to reach the chequered flag – when a fuel pressure problem hobbled his car nine laps from the end of the 2018 Austrian Grand Prix – and Hamilton’s mistakes are so few and far between that he has not crashed out of his own accord for over a decade. In both 2014 and 2016 Hamilton had the lion’s share of Mercedes’ reliability encounters and while he struck back to win the title in 2014 the mechanical setbacks contributed to his 2016 defeat – the last time Formula 1 had a last-round decider. However, that was four years ago, and Mercedes has since reached new heights. Bottas suffered Mercedes’ sole 2020 retirement at the Nürburgring, owing to an MGU-K failure, and his tyre deflation at Silverstone proved substantially more costly than his team-mate’s last-lap drama.
Bottas makes a breakthrough
There are very few statistics that augur well for Valtteri Bottas. He trails Hamilton this season in wins, pole positions, podiums, laps led… The closest he has been in pure points to Hamilton was in 2017 – when he finished 58 points adrift – having been 161 down in 2018 and 87 behind in 2019. Bottas is a better driver than when he joined Mercedes but his misfortune is to be paired alongside the ever-improving greatest. Bottas’ qualifying pace is regularly strong and several of his one-lap defeats this year were by less than a tenth of a second. But in race trim he often falls behind Hamilton and is not a match for his team-mate in terms of pure pace, racecraft or tyre-saving ability. That needs addressing else 2021 will simply be a repeat of 2020 and before. The apolitical and amiable Bottas has never resorted to the mind games or warfare that led to the breakdown in the Hamilton/Rosberg relationship – and that has been of benefit to both Hamilton and Mercedes. Even accounting for all of this, could a perfect Bottas ever beat a perfect Hamilton? Perhaps not. But a perfect Bottas would at least stand more of a chance than the 2020-spec.
Red Bull – and Honda – delivers
Red Bull has challenged Mercedes on occasion but has had neither the chassis nor the engine to provide a season-long threat in the hybrid era. In 2019 it started slowly, amid the beginning of its Honda partnership, while this year its chassis was not a match for Mercedes’ W11 early on. Progress has been made with the RB16 and there is optimism that the ‘RB16B’ will aid its cause but it still has to make strides to dethrone Mercedes, which has long since halted its own 2020 development. Much will hinge on what Honda brings to the table. Honda is entering its final season in Formula 1 but has promised that it will go all out, accelerating the introduction of a new engine, in order to win the world title. It went from no-hoper to race winner in just two years and if – and it is a huge if – Honda can marry performance and reliability, and do so at Mercedes’ level, then a Verstappen/Red Bull/Honda axis could be potent. Having a second driver closer to the flourishing Verstappen, and therefore providing a double threat to Mercedes, would also help.
Ferrari strikes gold with new engine
Ferrari was the class of the field in terms of engine performance, at least over one-lap, in 2019 as it matched Mercedes on nine pole positions. But this year its straight-line speed has been weak, its SF1000 draggy, after it was revealed in February that it had reached a private settlement with the FIA over its 2019 power unit. Customer teams Alfa Romeo and Haas have also struggled for overall grunt. But Charles Leclerc in particular has shown that Ferrari is not a no-hoper, with his qualifying displays encouraging, while aerodynamic updates have assisted the team’s prospects. Given that Ferrari has had 2021 in mind with the recent updates, rather than trying to maximise its 2020 results, that is reason for some optimism. Mattia Binotto revealed earlier this month that Ferrari’s 2021 engine has provided promising results on the dyno and that will boost the team’s confidence heading into next year. Ferrari has ruled out wins until 2022, given its deficit, but if Maranello can provide a heap more grunt then it would be remiss not to expect a mini-revival for 2021 that could at least leave it fighting for more regular podiums.