For the first time in a decade, Formula One is a contest rather than a procession – it is one of the most compelling seasons in the sport’s recent history.
And rather than being an internal fight between Mercedes drivers, as was the case in 2016 when it came down to an arm wrestle between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, this is a two-way ruck between two teams and two men.
Hamilton, who trails by 12 points after seven rounds in the Mercedes, and championship leader Max Verstappen in a Red Bull – here, Sportsmail takes a look at how it may play out.
Max Verstappen (left) and Lewis Hamilton (right) are in the tighest F1 title race for a decade
Who has the experience?
Hamilton, with seven titles to his name, is the man in possession. He is the defending champion and knows how to deal with the pressure of a title fight. He has been there before, prevailing under intense scrutiny in 2008, when he won on the final bend of the final lap of the final race in Brazil, beating Felipe Massa of Ferrari.
He also lost the title in 2007 in his unforgettable debut season. Again, it was sorted out in the concluding Grand Prix. So Hamilton understands what it takes, and can draw on those mixed experiences.
Verstappen, on the other hand, is new to this sort of examination. That is a mixed blessing. Long seen as the heir to the throne, the Dutchman has no baggage and can drive with a certain freedom. But it is yet to be seen how he behaves in this sort of heat.
Max Verstappen kept his championship bid on track by claiming another 2021 Grand Prix win
The Dutchman is quickly becoming used to finishing No 1 and he is a major threat to Mercedes
He seems fairly breezy for now, relishing the situation in which he finds himself and, while both have driven off track in recent races, they are each in a level mid-season mood. Only seven of the 23 races have unfolded so far, and the most exacting moments of their rivalry have yet to be played out.
Verstappen’s nerve has yet to be put under the microscope.
Who is faster?
Hamilton’s one-lap pace is underlined by his record of poles — 100. That beats everyone in history by a mile but is partly a product of Mercedes’ dominance of recent times. Verstappen, though, is quick, too, yet he only has five poles to his credit.
He is an elbows-out driver and Red Bull now have a car equal to the Mercedes, a machine that has won the last seven drivers’ and constructors’ titles, mostly because of its superbly dominant engine.
Hamilton’s engineers took responsibility but mistakes are piling up – and they are very costly
Verstappen extended his lead in the championship to 12 points with a brilliant win in France
Hamilton takes very few chances these days, operating under the policy that he is engaged in a marathon rather than a sprint. He sees scoring points rather than winning races as his prime concern in a way he did not when he was younger. Then, he would take risks that he no longer would.
This approach may yet lead to his prevailing over a season longer than has ever been staged before. Verstappen, 13 years younger at 23, is more given to impetuosity, though he would hate that to be said of him.
Who is calmer?
This is a hard one to call. Verstappen has the seemingly more settled life. He is happy with his girlfriend, Kelly Piquet, the daughter of three-time world champion Nelson, and spends his recreational hours in Monaco with friends and family.
Hamilton, who is single and continues to defy the received wisdom that long-distance travel is deleterious to sustained success, spreads his time between Monaco and America, with occasional visits to England to see his father, Anthony, and other family.
Both seem, in their different ways, to have backgrounds that complement their day jobs.
What about their teams?
Mercedes, even as they struggle at the moment, are not to be undervalued — they are serial winners. But in France last weekend, they lacked the strategic dexterity shown by Red Bull. They were dithering whereas their rivals were nimble and bold.
A small rule change, ahead of a major overhaul next season, tweaked the floor of the cars — to reduce downforce — and affected Mercedes more than others. Hamilton also has to contend with the uncertainty of who will be his team-mate next year, and indeed doubts over whether he will continue himself.
George Russell, of Williams, is expected to take over from Valtteri Bottas, the Finn who is out of sorts and hardly the ideal foil to act as Hamilton’s wingman. Those cracks will come to a crunch point at some stage.
Sportsmail’s money remains on Hamilton (left) for the driver’s championship – but only just
Red Bull, under the direction of Christian Horner, who ruffles the composure of counterpart Toto Wolff, are pretty sure-footed and possess a settled line-up in Verstappen and Sergio Perez, who is increasingly impressing now he has his feet under the table.
A big thing in sport, and it lies with Red Bull. They smell blood. But Hamilton, a past master, and Mercedes still have plenty of opportunity to turn it around. My money remains on Hamilton — but only just.