If the first three races of the 2021 season have taught us anything about this year’s championship battle, it’s that tiny mistakes have the potential to be very costly.
It may seem unfair to point out errors rather than moments of brilliance from the racing we’ve seen so far (although we will focus on both in this article), but the standard of driving between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton has been set so high that it’s often the errors that have a bigger impact.
Hamilton’s win in Portugal, which moved him eighth points clear of Verstappen in the championship, was arguably in the top 10 percent of the 97 victories he has taken in his career.
Yet even his team boss Toto Wolff stopped short of heaping praise on the seven-time champion given the incredibly high bar Hamilton has set himself over recent years.
“It makes no sense to talk about these exceptional Lewis performances because they have been quite regular,” Wolff said.
“It’s his standard now, and I think he sets that standard to himself.
“We had a good race car [in Portugal], again it was very close with the Red Bull, but he just drove an immaculate race.”
It was Hamilton’s second “immaculate” race of the year, following on from his victory at the opening round of the season in Bahrain.
By contrast Verstappen has one immaculate race, in Imola, even if the errors that have blotted his copybook at the other two have not been as big as the single, significant error Hamilton “got away with” at Imola.
The result is an eight-point gap in the standings between the two drivers that reflects the pattern of the first three races in which the two have had a monopoly on the first two steps of the podium.
But with just over 10 percent of the season complete, the championship lead could just have easily been Verstappen’s and the difference has been in the margins, as listed below.
Mistakes vs. moments of brilliance
Bahrain track limits overtake
Verstappen looked locked on for victory at the opening race of the season until he ran off the track at Turn 4 while passing Hamilton for the lead. A tiny error, measured in inches, but one that meant he had to give first place back to his rival with just three laps remaining. Arguably the bigger mistake came a lap later when a huge slide through Turn 12 took the remaining life out of his tyres and prevented mounting another attack on the Mercedes.
Cost: Seven points.
Qualifying at Imola
It was nothing more than a scrappy qualifying lap, but one that left him third on the grid behind teammate Sergio Perez and Hamilton. However, the mistake was easily forgiven following his lightning start the following day and had no impact on the championship.
Cost: Zero points.
Near-spin behind the Safety Car at Imola
Just as the race was about to restart after a Safety Car period, Verstappen lost the rear of his car at Rivazza and briefly ended up off the track before recovering to resume his place at the front of the field when racing got back underway. This could be viewed as a great save in difficult conditions or seen as a lucky escape that nearly cost him victory.
Either way, it had no impact on the most dominant performance of any driver this year.
Cost: Zero points.
Qualifying Portimao track limits
Another mistake in qualifying, this time seeing him slide wide at Turn 4 and breach track limits regulations. Arguably the mistake cost him more time than he gained meaning he didn’t gain an advantage by going beyond track limits, but the lap, which would have been fast enough for pole position, was deleted.
Cost: Hard to quantify given the way the race panned out, but starting on pole ahead of Bottas could have allowed him to build a gap early on and take victory.
Losing second place to Hamilton in Portimao
After moving ahead of Hamilton after an early Safety Car, a snap of oversteer three laps later in Turn 14 left Verstappen vulnerable to Hamilton on the start finish straight and the Mercedes breezed past him on the run to Turn 1. A tiny error, but one that cost him track position to his main championship rival and a potential race victory.
Cost: Potential victory and seven points to Hamilton.
Exceeding track limits while attempting a fastest lap in Portimao
This gave Verstappen the unwanted triple crown of track limits infringements, meaning he has now lost a race, a pole position and a fastest lap this season by straying beyond the white lines. It was an open-and-shut case of exceeding track limits at Turn 14 (although afterwards he appeared to be unaware that they were being policed at that corner) and the 0.016s margin he had over Bottas’ fastest lap means he probably gained an advantage big enough to set the fastest lap by running wide on the exit.
Cost: One point.
Overall dropped points: At least eight, arguably 15.
Verstappen’s moments of brilliance
Bahrain pole lap
It probably didn’t get the credit it deserved at the time, but Verstappen’s 0.4s advantage over the Mercedes in qualifying in Bahrain could stand as one the biggest pole margins of the year by the end of the season. It didn’t win him any points and he lost the race the next day, but the lap deserves recognition given his teammate Perez failed to make Q3 in the same session.
Gain: Zero points
A perfect getaway in wet conditions combined with an aggressive, but fair, overtake into Turn 1 saw Verstappen move from third on the grid to first at the Emilia Romgana Grand Prix. It proved to be a key moment in securing his first victory of 2021 and acted as a reminder of what a brilliant racer Verstappen is.
The start was key to Verstappen’s victory, but his performance throughout the race was also impressive. Hamilton pressured him in the first stint, but ended up in the barriers in the process. A great performance on a day when his teammate failed to finish in the points.
Gain: 10 points by jumping from third to first
Bottas overtake at Portimao
Another example of Verstappen’s natural racing instinct. He was slightly aided by Bottas’ slow pit stop in setting up the move, but when the Mercedes returned to the track he was right on the Finn’s tail as Bottas struggled with cold tyres in Turn 3, allowing Verstappen to complete the overtake in Turn 5.
Gain: Three points by securing second place ahead of Bottas
Overall gained points by moments of brilliance: At least 13.
Sliding into the barriers at Imola
This was a bigger mistake than any of the ones listed in Verstappen’s section, yet Hamilton was saved from going a lap down in the race by a red flag when Bottas and George Russell collided a lap later. It goes to show that a little bit of luck will also go a long way in the title battle.
Cost: Zero points, but it could have been as much as 15. Perhaps Hamilton would have challenged Verstappen for victory without the mistake, upping the points lost, but it’s hard to know how much the Red Bull was holding in reserve at that stage of the race.
Safety Car restart at Portimao
Hamilton lost a place to Verstappen on lap seven in Portugal after he was caught napping at a Safety Car restart. He later explained that he was looking in his mirrors at the exact moment Bottas led the field away for the restart. He got the position back a few laps later, but admitted calling himself an “idiot” under his crash helmet when the Red Bull drove past.
Cost: Zero points
Timing of fastest lap attempt with Bottas
This wasn’t a Hamilton error but a Mercedes error, yet it’s worth noting as it nearly gave Verstappen an extra point. Bottas was called into the pits with three laps remaining to fit soft tyres and attempt a fastest lap in Portugal, but that gave Red Bull the opportunity to follow suit with Verstappen with two laps remaining.
Ultimately, Verstappen breached track limits regulations on his attempt and didn’t claim the point, but Mercedes nearly gifted Verstappen a point by pitting Bottas one lap too early.
Cost: Zero points
Overall dropped points: Zero but it could have been a lot more.
Hamilton’s moments of brilliance
While Verstappen missed out on victory by exceeding track limits with his overtake, the fact Hamilton was in a position to force that move and then retained the lead over the remaining laps was impressive. Ultimately, Verstappen should have beaten Hamilton in Bahrain, but that shouldn’t remove credit from the Mercedes driver.
Gain: Seven points.
Imola pole lap
On a weekend when Red Bull had the fastest car, Hamilton still managed to put his Mercedes on pole by minimising errors. The lap was even more impressive as teammate Bottas could only manage eighth on the grid. He lost the lead by the first corner, meaning it didn’t really help in the long run, but it was still a qualifying lap of note.
Gain: Zero points.
Imola recovery drive
His Imola mistake should have been more costly, but when Hamilton was given an opportunity to get back in the race, he seized it. From eighth place at the restart, Hamilton overtook McLarens and Ferraris to haul his Mercedes back to second place and secure the fastest lap.
Gain: 16 points
His race in Portimao was Hamilton’s most impressive so far in 2021, overtaking both Verstappen and Bottas to secure a comfortable victory by the chequered flag. Perhaps he should have been on pole given the pace of his car, perhaps he should not have lost second place to Verstappen at the restart, but the fact he recovered from both so convincingly tells you all you need to know about how good Hamilton is this year.
Gain: 10 points
Overall gained points by moments of brilliance: 33, although the bulk of those came following a mistake at Imola.
What have we learned about the title fight?
Laying out the mistakes and moments of brilliance for both drivers tells us that, had things gone slightly differently, Verstappen could easily be leading the championship, while Hamilton’s eight-point lead can be attributed to a combination of skill and luck. But the main purpose is to highlight what a great battle we have on our hands.
Arguably, Hamilton has had more luck than Verstappen, but that is likely to balance out over the course of 23 races.
Arguably, Hamilton has made fewer mistakes and recovered more points with moments of brilliance, but it is not a direct comparison as the two drivers are in different cars with different strengths and weaknesses.
You could argue, for example, that Verstappen has been closer to the ultimate performance of his car, and therefore small errors, because he has needed to push that bit harder. Compare Verstappen’s first three races to teammate Perez and there is a wider gulf than the one between Hamilton and Bottas.
“Obviously we need to be perfect [to beat Hamilton],” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said when asked about Verstappen’s growing list of small errors.
“There are strengths and weaknesses to the cars — let’s not forget that Lewis dropped the ball in a pretty big way in Imola a couple of weeks ago and got away with it quite lightly.
“It’s inevitable when you are pushing to the limit, like these guys are, that it comes down to fine margins.
“The whole track limit debate is frustrating and it’s been brutal for us across the three events: the win in Bahrain, the pole position yesterday and the fastest lap.
“It’s been pretty expensive for us.”
If anything, the competitive picture between Red Bull and Mercedes has got closer over the first three races and, perhaps, Mercedes took a step ahead in Portugal.
But the age-old F1 question of splitting car and driver performance is ever present.
“You’re splitting hairs really [by asking who had the fastest car in Portugal],” Mercedes head of trackside engineering Andrew Shovlin said.
“Lewis had the fastest lap on Saturday [in the second session of qualifying] but any one of three drivers [Bottas, Hamilton or Verstappen] could have been on pole.
“To be honest, if you look at the race it was Lewis who won it. He was down in P3, he overtook on track twice, he got up front and he controlled the race.
“It’s very difficult to pick the cars apart, but if you are going to pick anything apart it’s that Lewis was the best driver [in Portugal] and that’s why he was sat on the top step of the podium.”
Will it continue to be this tight?
The fact the first three races have been decided by such small margins bodes well for the rest of the season, but it is no guarantee the title race will go down to the wire.
One major error by either Hamilton or Verstappen could result in a drop of 26 points in a single weekend, making the list of relatively minor errors above look insignificant in the final standings.
There is also the question of whether the closely matched performance of the two cars will continue across a variety of different circuits later in the year.
The three tracks F1 has raced at so far all have their quirks that may have skewed the picture.
Bahrain is particularly tough on tyres and it’s clear that Mercedes struggled in those conditions, while Imola and Portimao were the opposite and left Verstappen, in Portugal at least, uncomfortable with his Red Bull.
The next round at Spain will take place at F1’s traditional testing venue, the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, which has long been seen as the best barometer of overall car performance.
The potential for hot temperatures and a rougher track surface compared to Portimao are concerns for Mercedes, although the world champions have had a habit of playing down their chances ahead of every round this year.
“We’ve got plenty on our list of things to worry about [in Spain],” Shovlin said.
“It can be pretty hot there, it’s a tarmac that is now getting quite aggressive and can give the tyres a tough time and we’ve now done two circuits where it has been pretty cold and it’s been fairly hard to get the tyres in the right window.
“Barcelona is a little bit more like Bahrain, in that you are always overheating, and Bahrain was not a very kind place to us in some respects.
“That will be the main thing that we are worried about, but to be honest I think it will be more of the same and you won’t be able to split the two cars and you won’t be able to read qualifying or read the race. It will just be very tight.
“We are kind of settling into that this year, and I think the whole year will be like that.
“You’ve got to enjoy the competition and not let yourself get too stressed about it because it is going to be a long, tough year.”
Horner added: “It will be interesting to see [if the picture changes in Spain]. I don’t think Max has enjoyed this weekend [in Portimao], I think he’s been frustrated by the lack of grip and the conditions, but that’s the same for everybody.
“As we progress into the summer, Barcelona next weekend, if it’s in normal conditions there is so much data from that circuit with a mixture of high-speed and low-speed corners, that the picture will start to clarify.
“We can see that Red Bull and Mercedes are the two standout teams and Max and Lewis are the two standout drivers. I think it’s just going to be really tight with the development race between the two teams over the course of the year.”