F1 mid-season review: Hamilton vs. Verstappen rivalry heating up

Esteban Ocon won the Hungarian Grand Prix, marking his first ever Formula One win. Sebastian Vettel was disqualified after his car did not have enough fuel to offer as a sample to FIA after the race

It’s the midway mark of the Formula One season with 11 races down and 12 more to come after the summer break.

Let’s take a look at the storylines that have highlighted the first half of 2021 and things to keep an eye on when racing resumes with the Belgian Grand Prix on Aug. 29.

Hamilton vs. Verstappen

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton cruised to a record-tying seventh F1 title last season finishing with an impressive 11 wins and 347 points. Teammate Valtteri Bottas was a distant second with 223 points followed by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in third with 214 points.

This season has been anything but a cakewalk for Hamilton as he targets an unprecedented eighth world championship to further cement his place in the record books. Verstappen has given Hamilton a formidable challenge atop of the standings with only six points separating them at the break.

The pair finished 1-2 through the first four races with Hamilton winning in Bahrain, Portugal and Spain while Verstappen took the victory at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix in Italy. The 23-year-old Verstappen took charge with a streak of three consecutive wins at the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix and back-to-back races in Austria to overtake Hamilton for No. 1.

The past two events have been highlighted by opening-lap drama that have been costly for Verstappen. Hamilton punted Verstappen from the British Grand Prix at Silverstone earlier this month. Not even a 10-second pit penalty could stop Hamilton from claiming his record-extending 99th race victory. Verstappen called Hamilton’s celebration “really disrespectful” although Hamilton said he “wasn’t aware” Verstappen had been hospitalized as a result of their collision.

Verstappen was collateral damage Sunday after Bottas ran into Sergio Perez of Red Bull shortly after the start of the Hungarian GP. The Red Bull crew managed to fix Verstappen's car and salvage a ninth-place finish, but Hamilton soared from the back of the field to finish second and leapfrog back into the top spot.

Every generation of racing is built on rivalries: Hunt vs. Lauda. Prost vs. Senna. Schumacher vs. Everybody. Hamilton vs. Verstappen is just getting started.

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton talks with Red Bull driver Max Verstappen. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

Bottas on the hot seat?

We’re only halfway through this season but don’t let that stop the rumour mill for next season from churning.

Mercedes already locked up Hamilton for two more years, putting pen to paper on a contract extension in July. That took the attention off of Hamilton to allow him to focus on the championship. However, it also shifted things right over to Bottas, who’s a pending free agent.

George Russell is the potential heir apparent having been part of Mercedes’ junior driver program and filling in last season when Hamilton tested positive for COVID-19 prior to the Sakhir GP. The 23-year-old Russell fit right in Hamilton’s seat and was only derailed due to a team error in the pits putting on the wrong set of tires and a puncture that required an extra stop. Russell, who scored his first points for Williams on Sunday in Hungary, is set to reunite with Mercedes on Tuesday for a tire test. File the latter under “things that make you go hmmm.”

Bottas has six podium finishes this season and is fourth in the standings but you get the feeling Mercedes demands more from their second driver, especially with Verstappen and Red Bull posing a serious threat to both driver and constructor titles. Bottas' crash in Hungary will also linger in everyone's minds through the four-week break, especially since it also led to a five-place grid penalty for the Belgian GP.

Norris outperforming Ricciardo at McLaren

McLaren has been a story of consistency vs. inconsistency between drivers Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo.

Norris has inherited the mantle of “best of the rest” outside Mercedes and Red Bull but thanks to a remarkable streak as the only driver to finish in the points through the first 10 races, the 21-year-old British driver is third in the points ahead of even Perez and Bottas. The only knock against Norris is he hasn’t led a lap (yet) although his consistency could pay off in the second half.

Meanwhile, Ricciardo has been experiencing growing pains in his first season with McLaren and sits ninth overall. It’s been one step forward, two steps back whenever it looks like the 32-year-old Australian driver has finally got a proper handle on his new ride. Ricciardo posted a season-best fifth place at Silverstone only to experience another setback this past weekend in Hungary qualifying 11th on the grid. And 11th was where he finished — the unlucky spot just outside of the points — after getting collected during the opening lap pileup, no fault of his own. It must have stung to also see former Renault teammate Esteban Ocon take the victory, too.

Renault resurgence?

Speaking of Ocon, the 24-year-old Frenchman stepped up to the plate Sunday scoring his first career win at the Hungarian Grand Prix for Alpine (formerly known as Renault and now sporting the group’s sports car brand). Not bad for someone who lost his full-time ride with Force India a couple of seasons ago and had to fight for a spot back on the grid. Ocon is 10th in the standings with 39 points and will be out to prove during the second half he’s more than just a one-hit wonder.

You can also give an assist to Alpine teammate Fernando Alonso as the veteran did his best to hold up Hamilton late in the race. The two-time world champion from Spain has scored points in the past six races including a season-high fourth in Hungary. Don't call it a comeback but it’s Alonso's best result since the 2014 Singapore GP.

Woe, Canada

Big things were expected of Canadian driver Lance Stroll as the team his father co-owns shifted from Racing Point to Aston Martin and added four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel. Stroll has languished this season finishing no higher than eighth and has fallen to 14th in the standings ahead of only the backmarkers. Aston Martin sits seventh in the constructors' standings — not ideal for a team that had aspirations of moving into the upper echelon.

Meanwhile, Montreal’s Nicholas Latifi has exceeded expectations simply by finishing a race in the points with his career-best seventh in Hungary. The Williams driver scored six points -- the only points of his career so far -- and is right behind Stroll in the standings in 15th. Granted, it helped six cars had retired from the race and Vettel’s disqualification for a fuel infringement bumped him up another spot but that’s racing and Latifi capitalized.

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