Drama fit for a Netflix show, Formula One championship comes down to the wire

By: Stephan Teodosescu

Sure Formula One is a sport, but you’d be forgiven if you only knew it as a Netflix drama. “Drive to Survive”, the docuseries taking you behind the scenes of open wheel auto racing’s premier competition, has proved to be a smash hit among racing fans and non-fans alike.

And in a made-for-Hollywood ending the 2021 season will come down to the final race this Sunday in a way it only has once before in the sport’s 71-year history: Formula One’s top two drivers, Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, are level on points headed into the the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The only other time that’s happened in series history was when Emerson Fittipaldi and Clay Reggazoni entered the 1974 final tied as well.

A lot is at stake. Hamilton currently shares first on the all-time list of driver championships alongside the legendary Michael Schumacher with seven titles, while the 24 year old Verstappen — arguably the best driver for his age ever — is seeking his first world championship.

This past Sunday’s controversial race in Saudi Arabia set up the winner-takes-all final. Verstappen led most of the race but was forced to give up first place to Hamilton after an illegal overtake earlier in the race. Hamilton pulled away in the end for the win to raise his point total to 369.5, exactly the same amount as Verstappen after his second place finish. Hamilton now has eight wins this season to Verstappen’s nine with the difference being Verstappen’s victory at the Belgian Grand Prix, which he won after just two laps behind the safety car.

For the uninitiated F1’s points are handed out to the top ten finishers in the following order: 25, 18, 15, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2, 1 while a bonus point is awarded for registering the fastest lap (if you finish in the Top 10). For the most part the permutations in Sunday’s Grand Prix are simple — the driver who finishes ahead of his rival will win the 2021 F1 title. The only way Verstappen would still win the title without finishing ahead of Hamilton is if the latter finished 9th and he finished 10th and simultaneously claimed the bonus point for fastest lap. Otherwise it’s all about who crosses the finish line ahead of the other.

According to ESPN, Formula One “can trace its roots back to the earliest days of motor racing, and emerged from the buoyant European racing scene of the inter-war years.” It started in 1950 and has always been popular in Europe, and frankly most of the globe, but has only recently really taken off in the United States, thanks to Netflix. This year ratings for the races on ESPN were 51 percent higher than the entire 2020 season average as of October, according The Athletic.

The United States Grand Prix at The Circuit of Americas in Austin this year in particular drew record crowds and fanfare. Part of it was it was this years’ rendition was the first U.S. race back with fans since 2019, but another part was the added interest from the hit drama. The demand in the U.S. has convinced Formula One to add another circuit in Miami starting next season, and there have even been talks of a third in another major American city.

As for the racing, this is one of the most exciting seasons in recent memory. Verstappen is only 24 years old but has already broken myriad Formula One records. He became the youngest driver to start a World Championship race when he debuted as a full-time driver in the 2015 Australian Grand Prix at 17 years old. He’s also the youngest to win a race, win points, score a podium finish, and also holds the record for most wins (19) without winning a championship. That could all change on Sunday.

Hamilton has long dominated the 2010s and is the most successful racer is history if you look at total race wins. Hamilton passed Schumacher earlier this year for most victories all time; he’s won 103 races and counting vs Schumacher’s 91. The next closest behind those two legends is the currently active Sebastian Vettel, but he’s certainly on the wrong side of the aging curve and likely won’t threaten those records.

While he is undoubtedly one of the greatest drivers in open wheel history, an analysis by FiveThirtyEight has Hamilton as the third best driver of all time behind the late Brazilian Ayrton Senna and Schumacher. Identifying the all time great is, of course, a tricky thing to do since you have to compare drivers from different eras who raced with teams and cars that wouldn’t be recognizable to those in other eras, but FiveThirtyEight does a good job adjusting for all of this using their Elo ratings model. And it’s hard to argue against the lore of Senna, a driver who dominated in the 1980s and early ’90s before tragically dying in a crash in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

Either way by pure wins and points Hamilton is above the rest — one more title and he’ll be tops in that category too.

The Constructors’ Championship isn’t as tight as the Drivers’ Championship with Mercedes leading Red Bull 587.5 points to 559.5 with one race to go. It will take a monumental effort for Red Bull to make up that ground with the way Mercedes has been running all year; oddsmakers have Mercedes a -2500 favorite to win the title vs Red Bull’s +900 (9-to-1) odds.

But if the energy drink-sponsored Honda can pull of the miracle it will have finally dethroned a Mercedes team that has dominated in open wheel racing for the past decade — they’ve won every Constructors’ title since 2014.

So let’s all sit back and watch the drama unfold in what’s sure to be an epic race on Sunday. And if you can’t get enough wait a few months and you can relive it all on season 4 of “Drive to Survive.”

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