The wait has been arduous since the Supercars championship last turned a wheel in anger at the Townsville SuperSprint in July, with the COVID-19 pandemic having halted the series due to states and territories locking down in response to outbreaks.
The mid-season break is over and Formula One gets set to go racing again at the legendary Spa-Francorchamps circuit this weekend, resuming what has been one of the most enthralling championships in recent years.
A titanic title battle was laid forth at the passing of new regulations to maintain 2020-spec cars for this year, as a result of the ongoing impact of the pandemic.
Albeit with minor tweaks to the floors at the rear of the cars, this subtle change has seen a welcome shift.
Despite not having it all their way, the reigning world champions in Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes enjoy a respective eight and 12-point lead in the standings. However, the standings alone don’t quite tell the tale of how the year has unfolded.
Max Verstappen and Red Bull emerged as the favourites at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix and benefactors of the floor modifications. But it was Hamilton who kept his nose ahead in Sakhir, even if barely, with the Dutchman denied due to an off-track pass in the dying stages of the race.
Quick to assert himself in the next race, Verstappen at Turn 1 barged his way into the lead at a wet Imola and then drove masterfully in the treacherous conditions. Hamilton narrowly avoided catastrophe and was gifted a place back on the lead lap due to a Safety Car restart – to then finish on the podium.
This gift has been a recurring theme for the seven-time world champion, who – whether it’s his wit or pure fortune – has pulled the rabbit out of the hat on several occasions this season.
The strategic upper-hand played to Hamilton’s strengths at the following two races at Portimão and Barcelona, as the ghosts of Hungary 2019 came back to haunt Red Bull. Mercedes famously executed a two-stop strategy to have pole-sitter Hamilton come back to take the lead off Verstappen the hard way.
Red Bull then achieves something they hadn’t since their last title winning year, in 2013 – win the next five consecutive races.
Starting off in Monaco, cracks began to emerge in the Mercedes juggernaut. With Hamilton not on the pace, the onus was on teammate Valtteri Bottas to steal a win – but the luckless Finn was cruelled in his pit-stop.
Verstappen instead won his first at Monaco from an excellent Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz, as well as the Dutchman taking the championship lead for the first time in his career.
Azerbaijan was another race that could yet define the way this championship unfolds.
Verstappen had driven faultlessly in Baku, until with six laps to go a spectacular tyre failure saw waste to that. Hamilton had the opportunity to capitalise on the restarted two-lap dash to the end – however completely missed the braking point for Turn 1 and allowed Sergio Perez to take the points.
Mercedes were left scratching their heads during the triple-header spanning France and an Austrian double, as Max commanded a career-first hattrick.
Les Castellet was entertaining by way of Red Bull utilising the same strategy from Hungary and Barcelona which Mercedes used to beat them. Verstappen, with two laps to go, had the superior grip to take the win from Hamilton.
There was the usual bickering between rival team bosses, as both Christian Horner and Toto Wolff wrestled each other and the FIA to ensure their team had the advantage.
After the Spanish Grand Prix, Mercedes had opened the book on flexible rear-wings which they accused Red Bull of using.
Having any sort of flexible wing was meant to be outlawed, though the incumbent FIA testing method did not put enough stresses on the rear-wing to emulate the supposed advantage Red Bull were getting from it. A clampdown from the French Grand Prix onwards laid rest to that.
Aston Martin, née Racing Point, also took to protesting over the pre-season floor changes, having either advantaged or disadvantaged teams that run a low-rake aero concept. In their case, they were significantly disadvantaged for running with the same concept as Mercedes – which has seen them fall behind McLaren and Ferrari on pace.
The first ever Sprint weekend, in front of a packed Silverstone, saw Verstappen again muscling into the lead at Turn 1 over Hamilton – who was quickest in qualifying. Pole position was officially awarded to the Dutchman for finishing first in the Sprint, while Fernando Alonso wowed with his racecraft to net himself a higher starting position.
Come the grand prix itself, Verstappen never saw it past Copse. The 23-year-old kept it wheel-to-wheel with the seven-time champ for the opening corners, before there was contact that put the Red Bull out of the race.
A controversial eighth British Grand Prix win for Hamilton meant that he was within eight points of Verstappen, with Mercedes having closed the gap in the constructors’ standings too, courtesy of Perez’s mistake-laden weekend.
Fortune reared its head again in Budapest, as Hamilton slinked his way onto the podium – following a strategic blunder on the race restart, where the rest of the field pitted for slick tyres once the track dried. Both Red Bulls were out of the race on Lap 1, as the bowling ball that was Bottas out-braked himself going into Turn 1, triggering chaos that saw several drivers eliminated.
A token two points for Verstappen couldn’t stop the eight-point swing in Hamilton’s favour after Hungary, not to mention the promotion to second for the Briton following Sebastian Vettel’s disqualification.
It is moments such as this that could define who sits where in the standings come Abu Dhabi.
The closest gap in the championship coming out of a mid-season break since 2017 does give cause for optimism that the fascinating tug-of-war between the young Verstappen and the seasoned champion Hamilton will continue.
However, if previous seasons are anything to go by, caution must be exercised.
Hamilton and Mercedes have been peerless in the back-half more often than not, and Sebastian Vettel’s capitulations should serve as warning to Verstappen to keep it together. Therein lies the greatest test yet for the prodigy and with 11 races at least yet to run in 2021, there is so much room for error that could derail a whole campaign.
Nevertheless, an enthralling season so far no doubt, added with the brilliant showing of Norris – who has put his McLaren on the podium three times and overshadowed his highly esteemed teammate in Daniel Ricciardo. Same with Ferrari, who’ve been the quiet achievers as they look to build towards being a force again with their exciting duo of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz.
The fact that Leclerc has had two pole positions and been in the position to win twice sits far from the reality that the Scuderia faced 12 months ago. So too does Esteban Ocon, who struggled upon his return to the sport with Renault and is now a race winner for Alpine, being in it for the long-haul the French manufacturer.
While discussing futures, the drums are beating louder than ever for Mercedes to at last elevate George Russell. His first points for Williams, as well as teammate Nicholas Latifi in Hungary, was met with great emotion post-race.
And despite Russell’s disastrous faux pas at Imola – where he metaphorically ‘jumped in to’ Bottas’ seat – the 23-year-old does bring more optimism for Mercedes’ future than the Finn, who’s been nothing short of disappointing in 2021.
For now, its onto Spa-Francorchamps and the Belgian Grand Prix.