(Reuters) – Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff expects the Formula One title battle between Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull rival Max Verstappen to rage deep into the 2021 season, with the gap between the pair too close for comfort.
The 36-year-old Hamilton turned a five-point deficit to his 23-year-old Dutch rival into a two-point lead in the overall standings after racing to a landmark 100th win in the Russian Grand Prix on Sunday.
The duo have been engaged in a fierce battle all year long, with Hamilton aiming to become the first driver to win eight Formula One titles, as Verstappen hunts down his first championship triumph.
Thirty-two points is the widest the gap between the two has been, with the overall lead changing hands four times this year and three times in the last five races. There are seven races to go.
“I think neither driver or neither team can have any comfort in the current situation because there is just no gap in terms of points,” Wolff, whose team is 33 points clear of Red Bull in the team standings, told reporters via video conference on Sunday.
“I think this is going to go very long.”
The 2014 Olympic Park venue that hosted Sunday’s race and Monza, scene of the Italian Grand Prix two weeks ago, have traditionally been tracks that have played to Mercedes’ strengths.
While Hamilton seized back the overall lead in Russia and kept his team’s unbeaten run in Sochi intact, he and Mercedes would have hoped to have come away with more.
The points difference between Verstappen and Hamilton was unchanged after the pair put each other out of the race in Monza.
In Russia, Verstappen finished second, despite having started last after taking on a new engine.
Of the seven races to come, only Turkey, where Hamilton clinched his seventh title last year, appears to be a clear Mercedes favourite.
Hamilton may also need to take on a new power unit, which like Verstappen in Russia, would trigger penalties, sending him to the back of the grid.
“I’ve stopped trying to anticipate whether it’s a historically strong race for us or not because with the new regulation everything has changed so much,” said Wolff.
“But definitely we knew that Monza and Sochi would be coming more towards us and the reality is that we are where we are.”
(Reporting by Abhishek Takle; editing by Toby Davis)