Daniel Ricciardo title verdict clears path for Max Verstappen in Lewis Hamilton battle

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There’s plenty to be excited about heading into the 2021 Formula One season with McLaren and their driver line-up of Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris should provide thrills in abundance both on and off track this year.

Reigning champion Lewis Hamilton, speaking back in December, made it clear that he hoped his old team might even have it in them to enter into title contention this season.

McLaren finished third in the Constructors’ Championship in 2020 in what was their best finish since 2012 when Jenson Button and Hamilton drove for the Woking-based outfit.

But Zak Brown has sought to play down expectations for McLaren, who will return to Mercedes power units this year after parting ways with Renault as they welcome seven-time race winner Ricciardo to the team.

“They are both out to prove something,” team principal Brown said of Norris and Ricciardo. “Daniel is at the stage of his career where he wants to fight for a world championship.

“I don’t think we will be able to do that this year, but hopefully we will in the future.”

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It’s an honest admission from Brown that despite their year-on-year improvement, championship battles – for Drivers’ or Constructors’ titles – are still slightly beyond McLaren.

And it sets the scene for 2021. Aston Martin, formerly Racing Point, are at a similar stage despite welcoming four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel to their team. Titles are still a few years away.

So it appears there may be only one man capable of ending Mercedes’ monopoly: Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.

Red Bull have watched Mercedes snap up seven double titles with Hamilton winning six of the last seven drivers’ titles, Nico Rosberg clinching the other in 2016.

The Silver Arrows have been so dominant that the Constructors’ Championship was clinched with four races to spare in both of the past two seasons.

Since 2014, only in 2018 – when they won it in the 20th of 21 races – was the gap ever really that close, when Ferrari came second.

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But Red Bull have strengthened their team with the acquisition of Sergio Perez, who will provide Verstappen a greater foil than Alex Albon was capable of.

The benefit of having two drivers with strong pace competing in and around the podium positions is immense and Albon, for all of his ability, was too far down from the Dutchman in races last season.

He was also out-qualified by Verstappen on every single Saturday in the season, whereas Mexican Perez – having claimed his maiden F1 win at the Sakhir Grand Prix – has made it obvious he intends to challenge his new team-mate.

Ex-Racing Point driver Perez insists he will “overdeliver” for the Austrian drinks giants and vowed: “If we have a car that can win the championship, I’ll make sure we win it.

“And if not, and we only have a car that’s good enough for third, I will make sure that we finish second.”

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The 31-year-old will certainly give his all and ‘Checo’ can help his new team greater utilise tactics to at least put Mercedes under pressure. If Red Bull could get in between Hamilton and Bottas on the starting grid more often or even seal some front-row lockouts, that would certainly help their chances.

In addition Albon’s inconsistencies, Verstappen was also prevented from posing a greater challenge to Hamilton last season by mechanical failures but if he can avoid as many DNFs in 2021 and Perez can produce strong and consistent performances, the gap can be closed.

Whether it can be closed enough for him to take Hamilton’s crown is another matter entirely. It still feels as if when seven-time champion Hamilton is truly in the zone, he is untouchable, even despite Verstappen’s pace. See here: the Turkish Grand Prix.

Valtteri Bottas has finished second to the Brit in the past two seasons and himself will harbour ambitions of giving Hamilton a greater test, having finished 124 points behind him in 2020.

The Finn will certainly hope for luck less rotten than he has endured in recent years but it looks as though if anyone is to dethrone Hamilton, it will be Verstappen, if he has a championship-winning car at his disposal.

Even with an inferior car over the past two seasons, he has managed five race wins to Bottas’ six. In 2020, Verstappen finished on the podium in 11 of the 12 races where he reached the finish line, only missing out in Turkey.

At the very least the 23-year-old will hope to rein in Bottas and finish second in the Drivers’ Championship for the first time in his career. A few more race wins and a second-placed finish would represent progress for him and his team.

Hamilton has made it clear he’d love more wheel-to-wheel duels with the Red Bulls and 2021, we hope, will be the year we get them at every race. But don’t be surprised if the 36-year-old is the title winner once again come December.

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