OPINION: Soak up the madness that is the 2021 F1 season

OPINION: Soak up the madness that is the 2021 F1 season

The Hungarian Grand Prix was an absolutely epic race. It only took a front-running driver to wipe out three other front-running drivers in tricky conditions, and a midfield driver to take out two more well-placed drivers, and then the team of the one front-runner left to make a strategic howler, in order to deliver a classic. So simple.

But in all seriousness, it was just one of a number of great races this season; one where a proper title battle has emerged, laced with controversy and tension. On top of that, once-great teams have continued their recoveries to become occasional threats, and so the wheel-to-wheel action has been a step above at the front.

What it all boils down to is that we have this two-team fight, which means you never quite know who is going to win a race at the start of each weekend. And the pressure one team puts on the other increases the likelihood of mistakes, and of situations where incidents could happen that then open up opportunities for others in the field.

We’ve seen Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen race inches apart, overtaking each other for wins and even colliding at Silverstone. We’ve seen surprise qualifying threats from Ferrari and Lando Norris, podiums for new drivers at new teams, struggles for big-name signings, points for Williams and crashes for Haas.

And as teams head home for the summer break – featuring a mandatory two-week factory shutdown to ensure they actually take some time off – one thing has become clear: We’re only just getting started.

It doesn’t feel like the first part of the season was any less intense than a normal season. In fact, it probably felt more so, with 11 races crammed in already. But things are only going to go up a notch from the end of August.

I’ve previously been critical of many races are being scheduled in such a short period of time. Triple headers particularly brutal for teams under the best of circumstances, never mind when they are also having to deal with COVID restrictions. But while I stand by that view, the drama that the next run of races are likely to produce cannot be ignored.

Spa-Francorchamps is one of F1’s most iconic venues and has the potential for further chaos, given the changeable weather conditions that are so often seen there. And in recent years, it has been a stronghold for Verstappen fans who are able to make the quick and easy trip from the Netherlands.

But this year there will finally be a Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort that follows a week later, which means back-to-back races where there will be huge support for Verstappen and far less for Hamilton.

When you get into the tension of a true title battle you usually get clear divisions in support, and that has only been heightened by what happened at Silverstone. Verstappen fans feel they have been waiting a long time for Max to actually have a car capable of winning the title, so any flashpoint with Hamilton is not going to be forgotten quickly.

The growing intensity on the track is being matched by partisan enthusiasm in the grandstands. Andy Hone/Motorsport Images

Hungary proved that with loud boos for Hamilton from a grandstand packed with Verstappen fans following qualifying; the atmosphere fueled by Silverstone, but also heightened by the completely legal games being played on the out laps in Q3. The defending champion shrugged them off, but many commentators and pundits stated it was disrespectful and that there was no place for it.

I disagree.

It was all part of the pantomime. The strong support for one driver and the desire not to see them beaten by a rival is something we see replicated in so many sports where fandom can be that bit more tribal. For fans to engage so much with a driver is a good thing: it shows a real connection to F1. That is, as long as they know where to draw the line.

I understand the intention from those stating they feel it is disrespectful because these drivers risk their lives every time they head out on track, but I’d suggest the booing comes from a place where Verstappen fans fully appreciate the dangers of the sport and were therefore even more concerned by his crash in the British Grand Prix. Knowing how bad that outcome could have been has only heightened the rivalry and their backing for their driver.

It’s no different to the Hamilton fans who cheered loudly when Verstappen went off, before quietening as they registered the size of the impact. But they’re supporting a side, and it’s very rare that anyone’s first thought is to empathize with the opposition before celebrating a positive development for whoever they’re backing.

We’re going to see the tension only ramp up at races where either drivers has significant support – the next two at least going Verstappen’s way – but we’re also going to see very different tests of their respective cars across the triple header of Spa, Zandvoort and Monza. In those 14 days there will be a run of races that could so quickly change the whole dynamic of the championship, but still with so many more races to follow that we’re a long way from anyone being able to land a telling blow.

On recent form, Mercedes and Red Bull are back to being as closely matched as they were in the early stages of the season, and that bodes so well for the speed at which the season will accelerate. After the initial triple header, there’s currently set to be another one of Russia, Turkey and Japan, and with that half of the remaining races will be gone.

And the beauty of it all is that we’re almost staring from zero once again. Just eight points separate the two drivers at the top of the championship, and there are only 12 between their teams in the constructors’ standings.

Let me just plant a scenario in your head: We get pretty much the same ebb and flow replicated over the next 11 races as we’ve had until now. I won’t go as far as to say race number 22 will be as dramatic as Hungary, but all the evidence so far points to an epic year that will deliver more shock results and a championship decided at the final round.

So, soak up the madness that was Budapest and let that excitement for what’s still to come continue to build, because from the moment you next see Formula 1 cars on track, this season is going to be relentless and thrilling.