AUSTIN, Texas -- Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen are locked in one of Formula One's great championship battles.
The next chapter will be this weekend at the U.S. Grand Prix on the undulating Circuit of the Americas just outside Austin. Here's everything you need to know for the Austin race -- what's on the line, why Hamilton is so good, why Verstappen is considered the next big thing, and how they've ended up divided by six points with six rounds to go.
What's the current state of play?
This is an all-time F1 title battle. The lead of the championship has swapped four times since the start of the season, but since the British Grand Prix in July neither driver has led by more than eight points at any time.
To put that in context, a win and a fastest lap will guarantee you an eight-point swing over the driver who finishes second, meaning neither Hamilton nor Verstappen has been able to pull a serious gap over the other in the space of 16 races. For a sport that has been dominated by Mercedes for seven years, the challenge from Verstappen makes this season standout as something truly special in F1's recent history.
Verstappen moved back ahead of Hamilton at the Turkish Grand Prix two weeks ago and now leads 262.5 to 256.5, a margin of just six points heading to Austin and the U.S. Grand Prix. Verstappen leads Hamilton seven victories to five, which is an important metric to monitor as it will act as the decider if the pair finish the season on level points.
A more revealing stat of the balance of power between the two drivers, however, is that Verstappen has led 469 laps to Hamilton's 133. Of course, the only important lap a driver needs to lead in any race is the final one, but it acts as a good stat to underline how Hamilton has been the underdog for the majority of the season.
What's on the line?
At 36, Hamilton is looking to make F1 history. Another championship would be a record eighth as he is currently level with Michael Schumacher on seven. Winning this year's title would put Hamilton, who already holds the record for wins (100) and pole positions (101), in uncharted waters.
For Verstappen, it's the opposite situation. The 23-year-old is going for his first championship of what is expected to be a glittering career. Winning would make him the fourth youngest F1 champion behind Sebastian Vettel, Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, but it's also worth noting that this is the first season in his seven-year career that he has a car capable of fighting for the title.
What makes Hamilton so good?
Even if you don't follow F1, you've probably heard of Hamilton -- and for good reason. He is one of those rare talents and exceptional characters, who has the ability to transcend their sport and build a legacy that touches millions.
Born into a working class family, Hamilton's father, Anthony, took on three jobs to fund his son's early karting career and re-mortgaged the house to keep paying the bills. The investment paid off when McLaren boss Ron Dennis signed Hamilton up at age 13, putting him on a fast track to F1 with one of the sport's biggest teams.
But Hamilton still had to earn his position on the F1 grid and swept up titles in junior series before making his debut with McLaren in 2007. As the only Black driver in F1's history he also broke down barriers in a sport that still lacks diversity 15 years later.
He very nearly won the title in his first season in F1, but a series of small mistakes towards the end of the season saw it slip through his fingers by a single point. One year later, he fulfilled his destiny by becoming the 2008 F1 world champion, but McLaren's steady decline started a year after and it was not until he moved to Mercedes in 2014 that he won his second championship.
At Mercedes, he asserted himself as the lead drive in a new super team, being in the right place at the right time as Mercedes catapulted itself to the top of the sport under a regulation change in 2014. A combination of significant funding, technical excellence and great leadership has kept the team at the top since then, but Hamilton's role in the success should not be underplayed. The best drivers end up at the best teams, and although Hamilton has often made winning titles look easy, he is known for working harder than the majority of his peers to strive for perfection.
His success on the track made him a superstar off it and Hamilton has relished the opportunity to explore other industries such as fashion and music. In recent years he has also used the platform of his success to convey important messages about social justice and the environment, which remain at the core of what he stands for today.
What makes Verstappen so good?
The son of former F1 driver Jos Verstappen, Max Verstappen entered the early stages of his career with expectation laden upon him. But pressure has never really been an issue for Verstappen, who from a tender age emerged as one of the most naturally gifted drivers of his generation.
It's hard to pinpoint how much is nature and how much is nurture, but Verstappen was quickly identified as a winning machine in his junior career. Few of his contemporaries have been able to match his raw pace, and in recent years he has worked with Red Bull to develop a car that is blisteringly quick in his hands but twitchy -- verging on undriveable -- in those of his teammate's.
Despite winning races each year since his breakthrough victory on his first outing with Red Bull in 2016, this is the first season that he truly has the machinery to fight for the title. But rather than choke on the prospect of such an opportunity, Verstappen has relished the role and remained unfazed by the added media attention and ramping pressure of the title campaign.
He has also proven himself as one tough customer in wheel-to-wheel battles, unwilling to give an inch in direct combat with Hamilton, even if it results in a collision. At times he has looked unbeatable this year and his championship lead would have been far bigger had it not been for a tyre failure at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix and two accidents at the British and Hungarian Grand Prix.
What's the story so far?
It quickly became clear that Mercedes would not have another easy ride to the title in 2021. In pre-season testing, Red Bull emerged as the team to beat as the reigning champions struggled to adapt their 2020 car to new regulation changes aimed at slowing the entire field to protect Pirelli's tyres. The rule changes clearly impacted Mercedes' design concept more than its rivals, but that came with the bonus of creating one of the most competitive seasons to date as Red Bull finally got its car and engine package right.
Despite Mercedes' early struggles, Hamilton still won the opening race in Bahrain before the two championship contenders started to trade victories in the first third of the season. Hamilton's largest points advantage came following a dominant win at the Spanish Grand Prix, but it proved be his last victory for 11 races and was followed up by his worst performance of the year at Monaco, where he finished a disappointing seventh despite his teammate, Valtteri Bottas, running in the top three before a pit stop issue.
A potentially title defining point for both drivers came at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku. Verstappen looked set for a comfortable victory for most of the race until his right rear tyre exploded at over 200mph with just five laps remaining. The accident forced him to retire and resulted in the race being suspended while track workers cleared up the mess, presenting a straight fight between Verstappen's Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez and Hamilton for victory.
Hamilton made the better getaway at the restart, but left his car in the wrong brake setting ahead of the first corner and ran wide, dropping to the back of the field. Just as Verstappen had seen 25 points disappear in the blink of an eye with his tyre failure, so did Hamilton, with Perez going on to win the race.
Verstappen was able to put the disappointment of Baku behind him and then built up steam with an against-the-odds victory at the French Grand Prix and two dominant performances at Red Bull's home circuit in Austria. It looked as though Verstappen and Red Bull may have finally built the momentum to take a decisive lead in the championship, but then came the British Grand Prix at Silverstone...
The crashes that could define the season
Such was the close nature of the battle between Verstappen and Hamilton that it seemed inevitable they would collide on track at some point. The two had come close to taking each other out in Italy (Imola), Portugal and Spain, but Hamilton had always been the one to back out and avoid a collision at the last moment.
At Silverstone, Hamilton was the aggressor, coming from behind and needing to make a move stick in order to secure a home victory and put a halt to Verstappen's championship momentum. After the two fought for position through the opening two thirds of the lap, it became increasingly clear that the battle would have to be decided either before, or in, the 190 mph Copse Corner.
The sweeping right hander is wide enough to accommodate two cars running wheel-to-wheel, but it requires impeccable judgement from both drivers as well as a willingness to leave each other space. But as Hamilton put his car up the inside, Verstappen showed no inclination of giving him extra space and as the front of Hamilton's car washed wide on a tighter angle, the cars tangled.
In a fraction of a second, Verstappen's car was in a four-wheel slide and on course for a horrible accident. The car stopped so suddenly against the barriers that 51 times the force of gravity was applied on both man and machine from 190 mph. Verstappen was lucky to walk away from the accident unaided, but followed the circuit doctor's advice to go straight to hospital for further checks. Hamilton, meanwhile, continued on track and, despite a 10 second penalty for causing the accident, went on to win the race.
From that point onward the nature of the championship battle changed. Hamilton gained a much-needed 25-point swing in his favour in the standings, but Verstappen seemed more determined than ever to make the title his.
The next time the two drivers found themselves wheel-to-wheel was on the opening lap of the Italian Grand Prix at the Roggia chicane. Battling for second position, Verstappen once again left Hamilton no space, forcing the Mercedes across the run off and dropping Hamilton down the order.
A slow pit stop for Verstappen later in the race put them back on a collision course at the first chicane on lap 26, but this time neither was willing to give. Hamilton, who had just emerged from his own pit stop, appeared to have claimed the position, but Verstappen left the nose of his car in the corner and the two made contact, pitching the Red Bull over the top of the Mercedes.
Verstappen's right rear contact made contact with Hamilton's helmet as it passed over the Mercedes and only the halo cockpit protection on Hamilton's car prevented his head from being crushed. Both drivers retired from the race as a result of the collision, and once again battle lines were dug deeper through comments to the media.
Hamilton finally took his 100th grand prix at the Russian Grand Prix in late September, reclaiming the lead of the championship while Verstappen finished second despite starting from the back of the grid due to an engine penalty. At the most recent round in Turkey, Hamilton took a new engine, dropping him 10 places on the grid, but could only recover to fifth as Verstappen took second place behind Bottas.
The recent form guide suggests Mercedes has a pace advantage over Red Bull while also gaining a clear benefit from the fresh engines that were recently installed in both cars. It should mean we have a straight fight down to the wire in Abu Dhabi, although the battle remains so finely poised that a single reliability issue could still be the decisive factor.
Both drivers would be incredibly worthy champions, but only one can take the honour on December 12 in Abu Dhabi.