During a thrilling Bahrain Grand Prix weekend to open up the 2021 Formula One campaign, one thing became abundantly clear: Sir Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes are in for a fight this year.

Max Verstappen, the young Dutchman racing for Red Bull, took pole position in consecutive races for the first time after his success in Abu Dhabi for the final race of 2020, by nearly four-tenths of a second. Despite being only 23 years old, Verstappen is entering his seventh season in Formula One already, developing into a driver that shows maturity and calmness, compared to the aggressive, short-tempered Max we had seen in previous years. For comparison, Lewis Hamilton was 23 in only his second season at the highest tier of motorsport, the same season he won his first of a joint-record seven World Drivers’ Championships.

Despite his impressive performance in Sakhir throughout pre-season testing and the race weekend, Verstappen ultimately lost the race to Hamilton by 0.745 of a second. Having overtaken the Brit with only three laps to go, Verstappen was forced to hand the position back to Hamilton as he performed the overtaking manoeuvre while off the track, ensuring a tense finale as he continued his pursuit of the Mercedes right to the end. With many pundits believing that this could be the year Verstappen claims his maiden title, with a car that looks like it can achieve far more than the two race wins that it achieved last year, let’s look at five Grands Prix that could decide the title.

Monaco

It’s the race they all want to win, but few can ever achieve the distinction of being a Monaco Grand Prix winner.

Round 5 of the unprecedented 23-race season is currently set to be held in the Principality of Monaco, should COVID-19 protocol allow it to go ahead. Hamilton has won here three times, including the most recent one in 2019, when he fended off a late challenge from Verstappen, who was later demoted to fourth after being given a 5-second time penalty. Verstappen will be desperate to win in his own backyard as a ‘Monaco’ resident, or at least to achieve his first podium finish there.

As it is a slow, technical circuit with extremely narrow roads that make it almost impossible to overtake on track, this Grand Prix will most likely be won in Saturday’s qualifying. This track is all about confidence and commitment, where the equipment is less likely to matter compared to experience and determination. If Hamilton continues to rack up wins early in the season, Monaco could easily be the first race where he takes a 25-point lead in the championship, the same number of points that a driver gets for a win, and therefore build up an unassailable lead. It is therefore up to Verstappen to hold his nerve behind the wheel and push his Red Bull to the absolute limit to ensure he can bring the fight to Hamilton.

Austria

The Austrian Grand Prix always seems to throw up some action. Whether it be Hamilton’s collision with his then-teammate, Nico Rosberg, in 2016, or Verstappen forcing Ferrari’s young superstar Charles Leclerc off the track at the same corner three years later, we should be privy to some tense racing once again.

Round 9 is due to return to the Spielberg mountains and the Red Bull ring, the home race for the four-time Constructors’ Champions. This track has the fewest corners of any circuit on this year’s calendar, and therefore one of the highest average lap speeds. Red Bull’s engine, supplied by Honda, appears to be the strongest of all this season, with even Red Bull’s junior team, AlphaTauri, posting some incredibly quick lap times in Bahrain with the same engine. In Red Bull’s final year with Honda before moving to their self-produced power unit, a victory in their home Grand Prix would be fitting.

Verstappen has had much more success in Austria compared to Monaco, having won the 2018 and 2019 editions, and achieving two more podium finishes in 2016 and 2020, matching Hamilton’s two wins and two further podiums at the circuit. The Red Bull Ring provides much easier overtaking opportunities, with the three Drag Reduction System (DRS) zones being placed consecutively: on the pit straight, on the straight after Turn 1, and the straight after the next braking zone at the high-incline Turn 3, with DRS effectively providing a speed boost to whichever driver is behind. While the track is far from being the most challenging from a technical point of view, the race will certainly be worth a look to see how Hamilton and Verstappen fare in a pure contest of speed.

Netherlands

The Dutch Grand Prix is finally returning to our screens after 36 years, this time with a far safer circuit than its infamous predecessor. The last winner back in 1985 was the three-time Formula One champion, Niki Lauda, claiming his 25th and final race win. He passed away in 2019 after significantly helping Mercedes to become the dominant force they are today as the non-executive chairman of the German constructor.

Round 13 at Zandvoort will be an interesting one to keep your eye on. Scheduled to be held in early September, the race will come just after the mid-point of the season and could shape the run-in to the finale. Although he lives in Monaco these days, this Grand Prix will be Verstappen’s actual home race, and another one that he will be desperate to win, hopefully in front of the Orange Wall if the restrictions are lifted by then.

With very few F1 drivers having raced at Zandvoort before, this race could be one of the more unpredictable ones as it unfolds. The track is rather narrow, but without the immediate threat of scraping the barriers that Monaco has. There are two DRS zones, on the slightly wider straights, although they are much shorter than those in Austria, making it harder to complete an overtake. There is a good mix of corner types here too, with the quick, downhill right-hander of Turn 8, the slow chicane of Turns 12 and 13, and the incredibly steep cambre of Turns 4 and 15, making the need to perfect their lap times all the more important going into the race. The location of Zandvoort, by the coast of North Holland, could also see this race be one with rapidly changing weather, throwing race strategy sideways and mixing up the order.

Brazil

The popular circuit of Interlagos is returning to the calendar for 2021, and I truly cannot wait for this one.

Round 19 of this season will be held at the venue of many thrilling season finales of the past, such as the 2012 fightback of Sebastian Vettel in his Red Bull to beat Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso on the rain-soaked track. Similarly, the finish to the 2008 race provided one of the most iconic moments in F1 history, when Lewis Hamilton took his first title win by moving into 5th place on the final corner of the final lap, after title rival Felipe Massa had already won the race in front of his home crowd, giving Hamilton enough points to seal the championship. Formula One fans would surely love to see the Brazilian Grand Prix reinstated as the season finale; however, it will only be the fourth-to-last race of the 2021 season.

The narrow, technical circuit poses a different challenge for the drivers as it runs counter-clockwise, causing immense strain on their necks as they train all year for circuits that tend to have more right turns than left. Overtaking will again be difficult, but the DRS zones down the home straight and into Descida do Lago will provide a good opportunity for Verstappen or Hamilton to make a move. Verstappen won the last Grand Prix in São Paulo in 2019 from pole position, in a race that threw up continuous surprises, a year after Hamilton stole victory from Verstappen, who collided with a lapped car while in the lead, to claim his second victory in Brazil. The history of Interlagos speaks for itself, it is a fan favourite on the calendar and with so few races remaining afterwards, it could well turn the tide in favour of either driver.

Saudi Arabia

Now, I’m not the only one who was dismayed upon hearing that Saudi Arabia would be holding a Grand Prix for the first time this year. After efforts of inclusivity in 2020 with the #WeRaceAsOne message, Formula One has taken a huge step back with this race.

Round 22, the penultimate round of the 2021 season, will be held on the streets of Jeddah. Of course, the final race at Abu Dhabi could be an even bigger title decider, but as we have not had a championship go down to the wire since 2016, I remain doubtful that the gap will be small enough for a fight by the time we reach the United Arab Emirates in December. However, Jeddah is an entirely new track, and therefore we have no idea what it will throw our way.

Unlike other street circuits like Monaco and Singapore, Jeddah is incredibly fast and has very few hard braking zones. Despite officially having the most turns of any circuit this season, with 27, many of these are not proper turns and will be taken flat-out by the drivers. With this in mind, and the fact that the track has many wide sections, it is not unthinkable for wheel-to-wheel racing to be seen here. Though, my gut instinct tells me that as brand new tracks go, this will not be as much of a revelation as the race in Portimão was in 2020, or the first race in Baku in 2017. As with any new track, we won’t know what to definitively expect until we see the cars go around the circuit, so I’m going to try and keep an open mind, especially since it could end up being the title decider between Verstappen and Hamilton.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, and many variables will be at play throughout the season that could swing the title one way or another. Never rule out classic F1 circuits such as the Circuit de Gilles Villeneuve in Canada, Silverstone in the UK, Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium or Monza in Italy to be key races with plenty of drama. There could potentially be some surprise race winners for McLaren, Aston Martin, or Alpine (probably not them, actually). But whatever happens at these Grands Prix, it looks like we have a proper title fight on our hands this season. It’s time for Hamilton to show that he still has his fighting instincts that haven’t been challenged as much in the last two seasons, and for Verstappen to prove his potential and be there in the thick of it as the season progresses. Once again, it’s going to be a brilliant season to be a Formula One fan.

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