Down to the wire in F1: Hamilton, Verstappen toe to toe in final two races

Why this is the most exciting F1 seasons so far: 20 races later, just eight points separate Mercedes’s Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen

Mercedes’s Lewis Hamilton (left) and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen (right)
Mercedes’s Lewis Hamilton (left) and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen (right)

After 20 races and a thrilling championship battle, Formula 1 is heading to Saudi Arabia for the first time to kick off a season-ending pair of races this weekend.

Just eight points separate Mercedes’s Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, in what has been an intense competition for the ultimate prize in motor racing.

The first and second practice runs will take place on the 3 December, with the third practice run held the day after on 4 December. Qualifying races will then be held later that day, before the main event kicks off at 6:30 pm on the 5 December.

Why is this season so intense?

The championship has been so intensely fought that it seems almost impossible to imagine it won't be decided at the final race. But Jeddah is actually Verstappen’s first chance to wrap up the drivers’ title, by adding 25 points if he manages to finish first.

Verstappen holds the advantage even if Hamilton and Mercedes have had the stronger package in the last two races.

The equation is pretty simple from Verstappens’s point of view, because he needs a top-two finish to have any chance of winning the title. If he's third or lower, the championship is guaranteed to be decided in the final race in Abu Dhabi regardless of where Hamilton finishes.

It could go either way...

If Verstappen secures a top-two placement in Saudi Arabia, where Hamilton finishes becomes much more important.

A win with the fastest lap for Verstappen means Hamilton needs to finish in the top five to keep the title race alive, while a win without the fastest lap for the Red Bull driver would allow Hamilton to finish in the top six.

Should Verstappen finish second while having the fastest lap, Hamilton would need two-points, so a top-nine finish – and if Verstappen is second without the fastest lap, he’ll only be champion if Hamilton fails to score.

New Jeddah track makes the penultimate track unchartered territory

Another interesting aspect in this weekend’s race is the fact that the track is a new one for all teams to deal with.

The track boasts that it will be the fastest street circuit on the calendar given the high-speed nature of so many of the corners, and it will only be second to Spa-Francorchamps in terms of length.

Jeddah Corniche Circuit
Jeddah Corniche Circuit

The track has 27 corners, the one with the most turns on the 2021 calendar. The track’s average speed is predicted to be over 155 mph (249 kmh) and top speeds of 200 mph (321 kmh).

The race will also take place during the night, and so with track action taking place under the lights along the Red Sea coast should make for a spectacular tussle.

The Netflix Effect: a docuseries helped trigger an F1 boom

As the highest class of international auto racing, Formula represents a pillar of luxury with its high-spending partners but also one of the most diverse sports leagues in the world, with drivers hailing from all over the globe (15 countries are represented among the 20 drivers and many more within the paddock and teams). But Netflix’s Drive to Survive provided a behind-the-scenes look at the circuit that uses the world as its playground, highlighting the action and providing context to storylines that emerge both on and off the course.

While driver Max Verstappen spoke out about the series’ tendency to over-dramatize certain events to “boost popularity [of F1] in America”, the end results ha sbeen just that: Formula One viewership skyrocketed in recent years after the series, which is now in its third season, debuted in March 2019.

ESPN, which has teamed with Sky Sports to air races since 2018, said that the 2021 season is averaging 931,000 viewers through 14 races, which is 53% higher than the 2020 season average and 40% higher than the first 14 comparable races in 2019.