Lewis Hamilton’s second win in succession, in a largely dreary Qatar Grand Prix, has left the Formula 1 championship battle on a knife-edge heading into the final two races of the season.
A comfortable win from a dominant pole position was Hamilton’s seventh of the year and reduced the Mercedes driver’s deficit to leader Max Verstappen of Red Bull to eight points.
Neither driver is in a comfortable position.
Mercedes have been on the back foot for much of the season. But the trend line of performance in the last three months favours them, and an eighth title is very much within Hamilton’s grasp.
At the same time, though, the advantage still lies with Verstappen. He also drove superbly in Qatar, to fight back from a five-place grid penalty and finish second, and the Dutchman can clinch his first championship in Saudi Arabia in two weeks’ time if results go his way.
A win and fastest lap for Verstappen on the new Jeddah street circuit and Hamilton would need to finish fifth to keep the championship alive. Even if the Briton was second, Verstappen would head to the final race in Abu Dhabi with a lead that realistically could not be overturned unless he hit trouble.
But a win for Hamilton in Saudi Arabia with Verstappen second would set up a winner-takes-all showdown at Yas Marina.
‘They woke the lion in Lewis’
With the season so finely poised, perhaps it’s no wonder tempers have frayed in recent days.
Mercedes Formula 1 boss Toto Wolff said after Hamilton’s win on Sunday that his disqualification from qualifying at the previous race in Brazil, which led to the 36-year-old producing one of the drives of a lifetime to recover 25 places over one and a third race distances to win, had “woken the lion”.
“He is absolutely on it,” Wolff said. “Brutal. And cold-blooded. This is the best in Lewis, and we have seen it in the past and he is right there.
“When adversity happens, then it takes him to a place where he is able to mobilise super-hero powers. And it was the adversity that triggered that in Interlagos.”
There was more provocation for Mercedes in Qatar, with the complaints from Red Bull about the legality of their car turned up a notch, if anything, even from Brazil.
But in the end Red Bull’s outspokenness, casting aspersions on their rivals and on the officials, caught them out.
After Verstappen was given a five-second grid penalty for ignoring double waved yellow caution flags in qualifying, his team boss Christian Horner gave a contentious interview which was a step too far for governing body the FIA, and he was hauled before the stewards to explain himself.