Max Verstappen (Photo by Redbull)A 22-race Formula One campaign is bound to be loaded with twists and turns, and yet, the 2021 campaign has been far more action-packed than most other recent seasons.

Not only are there two legitimate, neck-and-neck contenders for the crown, but the season saw five different race winners and 12 different racers finishing in podium places by the 14th Grand Prix.

Of course, in the end, it’s all about the top of the standings, and just as Red Bull’s Max Verstappen pulled ahead of perennial champions Lewis Hamilton, Monza pumped the breaks. A halo-validating clash at Monza saw the two frontrunners retire, with Hamilton forced to remain five points back of the upstart 23-year-old. Now, the experts are trusting the heir apparent to see it through.

Verstappen looking good to deliver

Mercedes has been the dominant force in F1 for seven years, with only Hamilton’s teammate, Nico Rosberg, being able to lend his crown in 2016. Now, in the inaugural season of his new two-year deal with Mercedes, the Silver Arrows’ star driver is starting to lose his grip on the Drivers’ Championship. Down the final straight of the season, there’s little between the two leaders.

Still, Verstappen has now emerged as the favourite in the F1 betting to win the title, regardless of the strength of Hamilton in a Mercedes over the last seven years. It’s still fine lines, mind you, with the Dutchman at 4/5 while the chasing Hamilton at 1/1, but looking at the races to date, it’s somewhat surprising that the running is so close – both in terms of points and the odds.

Despite only winning four races, with Verstappen claiming seven, as of Monza, Hamilton is only five points back. As it turns out, retiring at Silverstone greatly helped to keep the Red Bull racer in check. Without that and Hamilton’s win on home turf, Verstappen could have been several points clear by now. Perhaps the main aspect that’s resulted in such a conservative grading of the two is how rash Verstappen can be.

Can Verstappen keep cool to the final flag?

With Monza in the books, eight races remained on the F1 calendar: Russia, Turkey, the US, Mexico, Brazil, an as-yet-unknown late November meet, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. That’s a lot of time to give up ground to an experienced Championship, with a few being distinctly unkind to those who get pole. This is important because Verstappen has earned pole eight times in 14 races, five of which resulted in wins, two became retires, with Hamilton only claiming three.

The final race of the season, at the Yas Marina Circuit, is well known as being as good as finished by qualifying, with each of the last four poles winning. In São Paulo, pole has gone on to win twice in the last four years, with it not being on the 2020 calendar and, in 2017, it seeing pole come second. Circuit of the Americas is also somewhat pole-friendly, with pole-winning twice and coming third in its last three meets, missing 2020.

As such, if Verstappen gets pole and keeps his cool, he could gain another 21 points over Hamilton. However, this does still leave a lot of room for error. The Sochi Autodrom hasn’t seen pole win in any of its last four races, but they do get on the podium, and Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez has seen the last few poles finish fourth, retired, and fourth.
Being the inaugural race, the Jeddah Street Circuit is an unknown quantity, but early reports, like that from The Race, relay that F1 is hailing it as being designed for overtaking and is set to be the second-fastest track. Istanbul Park, hosting the Turkish Grand Prix, only just returned in 2020, but it saw Lance Stroll take pole, but then finish ninth. So, it too could throw up a surprise finish.

Verstappen does lead, and his racing through qualifying has seen him get as much of an edge as he can over Hamilton. However, with the exception of three tracks, if the Dutchman continues to get pole, Hamilton will still be in with a shot.

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