The 2021 Formula 1 season so far has been very different from the one most people expected.
With entirely new regulations set to kick into effect in 2022, the common thought was that the 2021 season would look an awful lot like the last few years; Lewis Hamilton wins most races, Max Verstappen picks up a couple wins and a lot of second places, and Mercedes easily wins the constructor’s title.
Instead, Red Bull and Verstappen (along with new #2 driver Sergio Perez) have been dominant of late, between them winning the last four races and opening a sizable lead in the constructor standings. Verstappen, meanwhile, leads Hamilton in the driver race as well, with a real chance to be the first non-Hamilton world driving champion since 2016 (and the first non-Mercedes driver to win the title since 2013.)
This weekend F1 is back at the Red Bull Ring in Austria for the second week in a row, and based on qualifying results (Verstappen on pole, Hamilton starting all the way down in fourth) and Red Bull’s dominance last week on their home track, Verstappen has a real shot to extend his lead this weekend.
But even if that happens, Hamilton might end up making the most news in Austria, thanks to a new contract he signed with Mercedes that will see him stay both with the team and in the sport through the 2023 season.
The journey continues. ❤️
— Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team (@MercedesAMGF1) July 3, 2021
— Lewis Hamilton (@LewisHamilton) July 3, 2021
Many observers thought that Hamilton sticking around into the next era of F1 was unlikely. The common wisdom was he’d win his eighth title this year thanks to continued Mercedes dominance (while other teams focused on competing in 2022 and beyond), and then perhaps walk away rather than take part any further.
Instead, it’s 2021 that has seen Mercedes under threat, with a slight irony that they might end up looking forward to a new ruleset as much as any of the teams that pushed for those new rules as a way to bridge the gap to Mercedes in the first place.
It also means that there’s only one open seat at Mercedes going forward, which puts that particular decision in the forefront as well. Valtteri Bottas has held it down alongside Hamilton since 2017, serving as the perfect nonthreatening wingman to Hamilton; good enough to secure the necessary points for Mercedes to capture the constructor title while not good enough to threaten Hamilton at all for the driver’s championship.
This year has been different, though, thanks to that Red Bull resurgence. Bottas is coming under increased scrutiny, and his finishes and incidents like spinning in the pitlane last week have not inspired confidence. Meanwhile, likely top replacement option George Russell has continued to impress; he’ll start eighth tomorrow in a Williams.
That we could actually enter 2022 with Hamilton facing off against a rising star teammate in Russell while trying to recapture the driver’s title from Verstappen all while dealing with the variables introduced by new regulations seems almost too exciting to be true. But that scenario feels very plausible after today’s announcement.