Abu Dhabi GP a chance to see if Age of Hamilton has truly given way to Verstappen era

A season dominated by Red Bull's double world champion took a twist after Mercedes' performance in Brazil

Max Verstappen and Red Bull have dominated the 2022 F1 season but the pace of Mercedes in Brazil suggests Lewis Hamilton can become a title contender again in 2023. AFP
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Even just a couple of weeks ago it would have been reasonable to ask if the Age of Lewis Hamilton was over and the era belonging to Max Verstappen already in full flow.

The Mercedes driver, a record-equalling seven-time world champion, had not won a grand prix in 12 months while the Dutchman stormed to back-to-back titles.

Two championships in a row in themselves suggest a changing of the guard, especially the fashion of the one finishing Sunday in Abu Dhabi: with a record number of victories in the most dominant season in the sport’s history.

Formula One’s history is dotted with such transfers of power. The Ayrton Senna era was followed by one lorded by Michael Schumacher from 1994, then Fernando Alonso in 2005 and Lewis Hamilton from 2008.

And now it’s Verstappen’s turn, or so it seemed until Mercedes threw a spanner in the works at Interlagos, where George Russell stormed to his maiden F1 victory at the Brazilian Grand Prix followed in second by teammate Hamilton.

It was not just that they won but the utter, sudden, devastating superiority, of the 1-2 providing some evidence the page of history had not, quite yet, fully turned on them.

There is no question, of course, that as drivers Verstappen and Hamilton share a fiercely fast and pugnacious calibre.

Hamilton is a carefully manicured creation, well-financed and fully refined at each level of competition before the next step towards F1 was allowed, then making his debut off the back of the most comprehensive winter testing programme the sport has ever seen.

Verstappen, on the other hand, arrived in F1 less than 12 months after his final kart race. A desperate throw of the dice by a Red Bull team at a crossroads, gambling on a talented 17-year-old.

Hamilton won his first title in his second F1 season, aged 23. Verstappen had to wait seven years but was still only 24. The second came a shade under 10 months later, nine days after his 25th birthday. Hamilton’s took another six years. He was 29.

That is why Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is so much more fascinating. Not just a watershed between two generations of titans but a clash of cultures that created them, Mercedes’ motor racing aristocracy versus Red Bull’s rebels.

Until recently Hamilton’s 2022 results have had all the hallmarks of a veteran in decline: fading form and uncharacteristic errors.

It was clear the car, unloved as it was, was capable of more because new teammate Russell was proving it.

As the season has gone on speculation mounted we had seen the last of the blistering performances that moulded a seven-time champion.

Just before the summer break Hamilton rediscovered much of his mojo but at the restart it was more of the same.

Meanwhile, Charles Leclerc and Ferrari fumbled their championship chance and a ruthless Verstappen didn’t have to be asked twice.

From Imola he won seven times in 10 races. After the summer interlude there were six wins in eight to tuck away the drivers and constructors championships. His error-free speed as remarkable as it was relentlessness.

Then on Sunday the Hamilton of old re-emerged. The scent of a chance allied to a suddenly, and mysteriously, competitive car was enough to produce the old fire. Mercedes were as surprised as anyone by their own competitiveness.

But a bigger hurdle had already emerged for Red Bull in the shape of 'Costcapgate'. A self-inflicted own goal tainting their 2022 title as much as the first had been, but in a different way.

Whether Red Bull overspent knowingly or not, as they maintain, is a moot point. Either way it leaves a postscript that will live like an unwelcome smell in the history books.

A year ago here on Yas Island, Michael Masi made a mistake under pressure that poisoned Red Bull’s achievement unjustly. Most would admit Verstappen was champion in spirit anyway.

This year the Dutchman was setting the record straight until the FIA ruled his team had broken the rules. The $7m fine was a papercut compared to the research penalty. It remains to be seen if Red Bull can engineer a car so superior it can nullify the 10 per cent development handicap.

If it does, some would say, it is no punishment at all. Otherwise the momentum of the past two years that could have been the foundation of a new era of domination have been thrown away over a £432,652 ($509,030) overspend.

The racing gods, it appears, have tilted 2023 in favour of Mercedes as Ferrari’s key rival. But Sunday will prove whether they are any closer to taking advantage of the shifting scales and can delay the changing of the guard.

Updated: November 15, 2022, 4:44 AM