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F1: It's time to party like it's 1999

Publication: 
Bryan Edwards
chiefofficersnet

In less than a week's time, we will know who is the Formula One World Drivers' Champion and the Constructors' Champion for 2021.

When the teams pack up after the race in Abu Dhabi it will mark the end of multiple eras.

But there's a surprising history behind the two teams that are battling for the honours in a season that should not have been.

Red Bull, are hardly the new boys but somehow seem to both lack the sense of dignity that the other teams, even HAAS, have. Maybe it's because when they arrived in the pit lane, even then a rebranded existing team under new ownership, their primary focus, from a public point of view, was their fun image. They are a highly professional team, driven, determined - all the things we expect the great teams to be and with an enormous fan base - but somehow lacking in the acceptability stakes.

It is entirely unfair but it is a truth that they seem to be outsiders despite starting life in 1999 as the Stewart Racing Team, under the tutelage of the great Jackie Stewart then, having been taken over by Ford, being named Jaguar Racing as which it was not particularly successful. Historically, the team has never been particularly innovative but in its more recent years, it has been brilliant at development of existing technology. The fact is simple: if you try to make people regard you as different, you will be regarded as an outsider. Red Bull are at the heart of Formula One but outside the sport are rarely recognised as such. This year will be the last that Honda provides factory engines, as history repeats itself.

Mercedes is much older but not for the reasons one might think. Yes, Mercedes were in Formula One decades ago but the current team is the continuation of Ken Tyrrell's technologically adventurous team started in 1959 although not building its own cars until 1970. Tryell even built a Formula One car with six wheels, in the style of Lady Penelope's Rolls Royce in Thunderbirds and other radical ideas, often challenging for novelty Colin Chapman whose Lotus cars were test-beds for ideas that, even today, feature heavily in both racing cars and the cars we all drive on the road.

Tyrell was bought by British American Racing, or BAR, in 1997. It ran as Tyrell for the last time in 1998 and was rebranded as BAR-Honda in 1999 and, in partnership with Honda ran around in the middle of the pack for a while. As it has a tendency to do, Honda withdrew just as its development of its engine started to bear fruit. Ross Brawn took over the team which included a nearly-ready car and a sweetheart one-year engine deal from Honda and the very next year Jenson Button took it to a dominant world Championship for the team and Button. But money was tight and the engines were about to become expensive. Brawn took the difficult decision to sell the team to Mercedes.

But then came Red Bull with Renault engines and they picked up four successive Constructors' Championships with the talent of the day, Sebastian Vettel. But in 2014, with the beginning of the turbo-hybrid era of engines with a displacement of only 1.6 litres, engine manufacturers became, along with tyre-producer Pirelli, a deciding factor in many races.

The engines that are powering both teams are developments of the first generation of hybrids developed for world-class racing. Mercedes got it right; Honda got it very, very wrong. Button went to McLaren with Honda and sank to the bottom of the grid, often almost three seconds off the pace in qualifying in a car that was widely regarded as having the best chassis on the grid. Mercedes got it very right and immediately started winning. For seven seasons, no one could touch them. Their power and reliability was epic and their innovation in, in particular, aerodynamics, was often a telling factor, so much so that their 2019 car was, essentially, copied by another team which surprised the paddock with its pace.

Torro Rosso, aka Red Bull II, were deputed to be the test-bed for the latest iteration of the Honda engine that McLaren eventually gave up with , the faith of many supporters and sponsors and, even, staff. That test was so successful that Red Bull, frustrated with Renault, swapped suppliers. Suddenly, with power and reliability, there was a challenge to the mighty Mercedes and the much anticipated and long awaited battle between Hamilton and Verstappen was teed up.

It has been fractious. Hamilton, now seven times World Champion, is used to having things a certain way. His record of records is prodigious. In fact, he left many records behind so long ago that now every win, pole position even point that he scores etc. that he gains is itself a new record. No one ever talks about that any more because it has become commonplace. Hamilton really is that dominant in a sport where participation comes to few and domination comes to whatever a tiny proportion of "few" would be called.

But this year Hamilton has suffered mechanical problems that have in turn frustrated and baffled his team. He has used far more engine components than allowed and suffered grid place penalties to match. He has also completed the season demonstrating that even an apparently mild dose of CoVid-19 can have a long term negative effect on even the fittest people in the world. And, of course, he's been involved in incident after incident, often involving Verstappen.

It is true that in some cases, Hamilton has been at fault. It is also true that Verstappen has been at fault more times. But mostly the incidents have resulted from the fact that there are, for the first time in a long time, two drivers of equal skill, equal determination in equal machinery.

The recent introduction of a single point for the fastest time of the day has been crucial in bringing the two protagonists to where there are today. After the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Hamilton's FTD and win brought him level on points with Verstappen going into the last race of the season in Abu Dhabi next Sunday. But that's not equal in the Championship because Verstappen has one more win than Hamilton and on the virtual points system that applies all the way down the field, even outside the top ten, that nudges the Dutchman ahead. So, Hamilton must finish ahead of Verstappen if he's to win his eight title and the last one available in the era of the current cars. And Mercedes need good points to secure the constructors' championship.

So, what looks like a battle between two of the youngest teams in the field turns out to be the culmination of a long history.

Abu Dhabi is one of the dullest tracks ever to watch F1 on, perhaps second only to Paul Ricard. They are both featureless and from a spectator's point of view utterly confusing because it is nothing other than painted lines in a giant car park. Abu Dhabi might just edge out Paul Ricard because of its pit-lane exit - steeply downhill into a corner so tight the cars look like they might not get around it, then up a steep hill to join the track on the other side from the pit lane entry. It's a damning indictment of a track that its most interesting feature is the pit lane.

I still lament that loss of Interlagos as the last race of the season: it has seen many thrilling deciders over the years, including Hamilton's last-gasp defeat of Massa in 2008. But Abu Dhabi is where it has been decreed that we will see the end of this generation of cars, the retirement of Kimi Raikkonen and the showdown of the era.

One thing is clear: a DNF by both cars will benefit Verstappen. But neither needs to win. There's an old joke that, amongst other places, is at www.countermoneylaundering.com.

"Two city types are walking through the park and someone shouts "A lion has escaped from the zoo." One of them stops and changes into running shoes. The other says "those shoes won't help you outrun a lion." The response is exactly applicable to the Hamilton / Verstappen battle - "I don't have to outrun the lion, I only have to outrun you."

So if one of them finishes tenth and the other out of the points, that's enough. But they are racers: both want their names on the final trophy of the turbo-hybrid era.

Especially as no one knows how next year's engines or very different car designs will perform.

Yet, there is one sting in the tail. If one of them finished 9th and the other finishes 10th with the fastest lap, they will be equal on points. Verstappen's "virtual points" due to his number of wins will give him the title.

oooo, er, missus.

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