Vulnerable Mercedes Leaving Door Ajar for Red Bull

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Formula 1 fans finally have what they've been wishing for since the start of the hybrid era: a genuine title race.

With six races of the season gone, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen is leading the Drivers’ Championship for the first time in his career, sitting four points clear of defending champion Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton and his Mercedes team have monopolised F1 silverware for the last seven years, with only Nico Rosberg breaking the Brit’s streak of title victories.

The Silver Arrows have cut down the rest of the grid in that time with only the occasional stumble – they won 13 out of 17 races in 2020 – but their cloak of invincibility may finally have slipped. They have seriously lacked pace in the last two races in Monaco and Azerbaijan, presenting Red Bull with a golden opportunity.

Hamilton’s Historic Eighth Title in the Balance

Despite currently trailing Verstappen, Hamilton remains the 20/27 favourite to claim what would be an unprecedented eighth Drivers’ title this season. Pre-season testing suggested there could be problems for Mercedes though, Sir Lewis completing the fewest laps in winter testing with the team hampered by reliability issues. Those issues have continued since the lights went out on the season, leaving Hamilton in a vulnerable position.

While Hamilton has won three times already this year to take his career tally to 98, the nature of the victories hasn’t been as dominant as in the past. The Brit had to drive brilliantly to win in Spain and Portugal, while he was handed the win in Bahrain.

However, even Hamilton’s superb skills haven’t been enough to rescue his underperforming Mercedes in Monaco and Azerbaijan. He finished seventh in Monte Carlo as Verstappen completed a start-to-finish victory, while a rare error in Baku saw him come home 15th.

Missed Opportunities May Haunt Verstappen

The only good news for Hamilton last weekend was that Verstappen couldn’t take advantage of his mistake, the Dutchman having had to retire when leading following a crash caused by a tyre failure.

It was a real kick in the teeth for the 23-year-old, who hadn’t previously finished outside the top two this season. That blowout may prove costly in the long run.

However, Red Bull can take plenty of positives away from the last two races having been significantly quicker than Mercedes, who have struggled with grip issues at the street circuits.

The other piece of good news is that in Sergio Perez, Red Bull have a talented driver capable of backing up Verstappen’s title bid. The Mexican drove strongly all weekend in Azerbaijan as he claimed victory.

Red Bull haven’t had a consistent second driver to aid Verstappen for several years but Perez is another valuable weapon in his arsenal in the fight against Mercedes, who have yet to see a significant contribution from Hamilton’s team mate, Valterri Bottas.

With superior pace, a strong second driver and having seemingly fixed some of the reliability issues that have dogged Verstappen in the past, Red Bull look in a strong position. They are 11/10 to win the Constructors’ title having open up a 26-point lead, while Verstappen is 11/10 for the Drivers’ crown.

Two-Way Title Fight

With Mercedes expected to improve when F1 heads away from the street circuits and back to the more traditional tracks, starting with the French Grand Prix on June 18, the battle with Red Bull looks set to be a season-long one.

Based on the early part of the campaign, it is likely to be one of those two teams taking the checkered flag most weeks with Ferrari lacking the race pace to force their way into the picture. The Scuderia have a bigger fight on their hands to take the bronze in the Constructors’ championship with McLaren just two points behind after a positive start, thanks largely to the performances of Lando Norris.

While a three or even four-way fight for the title looks some way off, F1 fans will be content watching two of the best in Hamilton and Verstappen finally go wheel-to-wheel on a regular basis after so many one-sided years.

*All 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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