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Formula One is a sport defined by tiny margins, but for years it hasn’t enjoyed such a competitive championship as this season’s powerful head-to-head between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. Their duel enters the final phase which will be as fiercely contested as it is difficult to call. The two pilots and their rides are so well matched that a flawless and nerve-wracking execution will be imperative. There are five races left and they are no place for the faint of heart.

F1 is reveling in a season such as it hasn’t enjoyed since the start of the turbo-hybrid era in 2014. Hamilton’s Mercedes team have dominated since then, have rarely been challenged and have never been such that she fought blow for blow. final steps. This year, Verstappen and Red Bull have delivered this battle to them with emphatic verve.

After 17 laps, the Dutchman is only 12 points ahead of Hamilton. The lead has fluctuated between them throughout the season. Neither has gained a definite advantage, and neither of the team’s cars has proven to be definitively superior on all circuits. With the final five decisive meetings approaching, which will kick off with Mexico on November 7, both drivers are looking for any advantage, no matter how small. With Hamilton at 36 aiming for a record-breaking eighth title and Verstappen, 24, claiming his throne, trying to clinch his first.

Their cars are remarkably close to each other now in performance, so perhaps it is in the fine detail of how the remaining places suit them that makes the difference. Yet in a season that has been gripping throughout, even the previously perceived orthodoxies of Who Should Go Right Where have been overthrown.

Verstappen’s victory in the final round at Austin, a Mercedes stronghold in the past where Red Bull hasn’t won since 2013, was stark proof, as the Red Bull team principal noted, Christian Horner. “I think you have to throw out the forms book,” he said afterwards. Indeed, even following the form, the title races taken as a whole seem balanced between the two drivers.

Mexico should favor Red Bull as in the past. Taking place over 2200m above sea level, the thinner air is less of a drawback for their Honda engine. Its smaller turbocharger is beneficial in less dense air and offers an advantage in terms of power and energy recovery. Verstappen has won two of the last three races at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez and in the last race there in 2019 would have taken pole without a penalty. Red Bull will see this as an unmissable victory.

The next round in Brazil is up for grabs with Interlagos favoring no team. A mixture of high downforce and sustained pace is required. The middle sector of tight turns through the infield softened by the high speed race from turn 12, Junção, to turn one. Verstappen won in 2019, the only year Mercedes have been beaten here since 2014. Both drivers will believe Interlagos can be taken.

Verstappen and Hamilton title duel reaches climax with no margin for error |  Formula One
Lewis Hamilton cannot afford to make mistakes in the remaining races if he is to retain the world title. Photography: Dppi / LiveMedia / Shutterstock

It is followed by the wild cards of this season which could prove to be decisive. Neither Qatar nor Saudi Arabia have hosted F1 before and the teams have no experience of how their cars will adapt to track surfaces, how their tires will perform and local conditions. Across many parameters, they are a step into the unknown.

On paper, the Losail circuit in Qatar with many medium-speed corners may give Red Bull the advantage, but they will be concerned about the track running smoothly with their tires which could, like in Turkey, give the advantage to Mercedes.

The newly built Jeddah Corniche Circuit in Saudi Arabia is billed as a street circuit, but it is a purpose built track in the city. The caveats regarding conditions and surface then remain, but with a predominance of high-speed flat sections, the low-drag Mercedes should be in its element here.

Which leaves what is likely to be the decision maker in Abu Dhabi. The Yas Marina track which, like Brazil, combines fast straights and slower corners, should in this season’s form end up being little between the two teams. Mercedes have dominated in the past, but last year Verstappen won with a real pace advantage. If there’s nothing in it, with some notoriously tough overtaking, qualifying can take on epic proportions.

One element that can also prove to be decisive beyond any other is the way in which abandoning the track could sow the hopes of either driver. Dropping up to 25 points in a race would likely end the competition and although they will charge hard it will be imperative to carefully avoid moments of white articulation and here Hamilton’s experience can give him a advantage.

However, his Mercedes team is also feeling the pressure after admitting concerns about the durability of their engines. Hamilton teammate Valtteri Bottas has already taken six, with Hamilton on four. A failure in the race or even the need to take a replacement would almost certainly put an end to the hopes of the world champion.

It’s the elements, the imponderables that make it so fascinating, regardless of what happens between the two on the track. The season has been so hard to predict that it would be reckless to view the results of these last five as tough and fast, but if we’re lucky it will go over and be decided by those small margins.

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