Two races down, two stone-cold modern classics to savour as the Lewis Hamilton versus Max Verstappen rivalry pleasingly lives up to the hype. Will the duo deliver a third thrilling instalment of their Formula 1 duel at Portimão this weekend? There’s no reason to think otherwise. It’s early days, of course, but from what we’ve seen so far, this season looks set to become one of the most memorable for years – and for all the right reasons.
Hamilton's eighth title under threat
Hamilton arrives in Portugal with just a one-point lead over Verstappen in the title race, thanks to the fastest lap that he banked late on at Imola. There was a big dose of luck in his second-place finish in the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, following an uncharacteristic mistake that led him to slithering off into the barrier at Tosa. He lost a lap but instantly gained it back in the wake of the red flag interruption, then put in a superb DRS-assisted comeback from ninth at the restart to finish second, albeit 22 seconds down on Verstappen, who had his own moment of good fortune when he only just avoided an embarrassing spin at Rivazza just as the race was about to resume from a rolling start.
Naturally, Mercedes-AMG and Red Bull don’t agree on which car has the edge at this stage. But in its final season with works Honda power, the latter is at least on a par with the dominant force of this first hybrid era, giving its talisman his first real shot at a title charge.
The small change to the aerodynamic regulations appears to have hampered Mercedes’ low-rake W12 much more than Red Bull’s high-rake RB16B. But hey, pegging back the best with change to the regulations is hardly new. Before the 1983 season, the FIA made a late rules change that effectively banned ground-effect aero, leaving most of the teams scrabbling to prepare revised cars based on the previous year’s. Gordon Murray audaciously went back to the drawing board and in short order came up with the delta-shaped beauty that was the Brabham-BMW BT52, which propelled Nelson Piquet to his second title. F1 teams are instilled to think fast when the rug is pulled.
Undermined by the rules change or otherwise, Hamilton knows that he faces the fight of his life if he wants to claim that record eighth world title. Bring it, as they like to say.