F1 Poised for Duel in the Desert

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Not since Nico Rosberg snatched the drivers' championship from Lewis Hamilton's grasp have F1 fans been treated to such a titanic title showdown.

Lewis Hamilton at the Sao Paulo Grand Prix

Entering the final three races of the 2021 season, Max Verstappen holds a slender 14-point lead over Hamilton after a weekend of high drama in Brazil.

Verstappen remains the favourite to clinch his first crown but one of Hamilton’s best-ever drives at Interlagos has resulted in his odds being trimmed.

Despite appearing to snatch the momentum from his Red Bull rival in Brazil, history tells us Hamilton is still up against it in his bid to become a record eight-time champion with the driver at the top of the standings entering the final three rounds having gone on to clinch the championship in each of the last 10 years.

Red Bull v Mercedes Rivalry Hits New Heights

That stat may be cold comfort to Verstappen, who had no answer to Hamilton’s pace in Sao Paulo following an engine change by Mercedes. The new power unit clearly aided the Brit but he still had to overcome other hurdles, including a five-place grid penalty for changing the engine, followed by being disqualified from qualifying for his Mercedes contravening rules to do with the rear wing.

Hamilton would not be denied though, making up a total of 25 places over the weekend from his various different penalties as he took only his sixth win of the season.

The stakes now couldn’t be higher and the tension is starting to show with the war of words between Red Bull and Mercedes nearly matching the intensity of the on-track action.

Mercedes were frustrated Verstappen wasn’t penalised for what they saw as forcing Hamilton off the track as he tried to overtake the Dutchman on lap 48.

The Brit would eventually get past but the Silver Arrows wouldn’t let it lie with team boss Toto Wolff hitting out at race authorities post-race and claiming “diplomacy has ended today” between themselves and Red Bull.

Tight Losail Layout Limits Action

The Formula 1 season now heads to the Middle East for the final three rounds, starting with the inaugural Qatar Grand Prix on November 19.

The Losail International Circuit, better known for hosting MotoGP race, will stage the next chapter in the Verstappen v Hamilton battle but fans expecting another wheel-to-wheel thriller may be disappointed.

Having been built more for biking racing, the narrow nature of the track means overtaking opportunities will be few and far between. The party atmosphere of Interlagos will also be absent with the venue only capable of holding a small crown by F1 standards, in the region of 8,000 people, and the race threatens to be a damp squib after the drama of the Americas leg.

Hamilton is the 5/7 favourite to win in Qatar with Verstappen a 27/20 chance to claim a 10th win of the season. Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas is best of the rest at 16/1.

Given the limited opportunities for overtaking, Saturday’s qualifying session could prove vital and Verstappen has had the edge over Hamilton when it comes to grid position this term.

The 24-year-old has nine pole positions to his name this year compared to Hamilton’s total of three, which is the same total as team mate Bottas and only one ahead of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.

Given his record in qualifying this year, Verstappen looks the value option in what is again likely to be a two-horse race for the chequered flag with the title rivals finishing first and second on 11 occasions this season.

*Odds correct at time of writing

Chris is broadcast and written journalist with a wealth of experience, across a number of different sports. As well covering football on the radio, he is a regular online and print contributor on the likes of rugby union, American Football and Formula One.

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