Formula 1 heads into unknown with title race finely balanced
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Istanbul – The Turkish Grand Prix may have been a dull, processional race but it was also a taut game of worn-tyre poker and after it ended, the players continued to try to bluff each other.
With six of the 21 rounds to race, Max Verstappen of Red Bull has retaken the lead in the drivers' championship by six points over reigning champion Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes.
The battle has not been so close since 2016 when Hamilton edged Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg by five points.
After the spray had settled, the two teams started spinning. The mental games were also internal after Hamilton ended the race blaming Mercedes tacticians for his lowly fifth place.
Much of race was driven under a cloud of uncertainty with rain constantly threatening but never falling heavily.
Only the two drivers who started with grid penalties, Hamilton and Carlos Sainz of Ferrari, drove with consistent aggression.
Verstappen was content to plod round in second and grab the points he needed.
The Dutchman said his greatest challenge was "staying awake".
Mercedes won with Valtteri Bottas and picked 36 points to 33 by Red Bull. But the Austrian team had two podium finishers, with Sergio Perez third, and Verstappen took the lead in the drivers championship.
"I think we managed to maximise the result," said Verstappen before suggesting he was the underdog.
"I wish I had a bit more pace in the car," the Dutchman said. "But we are in the fight and we keep fighting, and we'll see in the coming races how competitive we are going to be."
Hamilton was furious after a late tyre change which he thought cost him two places.
"We shouldn't have come in," he said over team radio. "I told you!"
Later he became a good team player.
"We win as a team and we lose as a team. Overall, the car was great this weekend," the Briton said. "If we can continue to perform like that over the next few races, we'll be in a good position come the end of the season."
It is difficult to judge form for the final six races.
The next three - in the United States, Mexico and Brazil - were not held last year.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia are new and the last one, Abu Dhabi, has been redesigned to create more spectacle on a circuit with a reputation as boring.
"I've stopped trying to anticipate whether it's historically a strong race for us or not," said Mercedes boss Toto Wolff.
Red Bull boss Christian Horner liked his teams chances.
"We're going to Austin, where we should be in the mix, then Mexico and Brazil, where we've always been strong," he said.
"We don't know anything about Qatar, we don't know anything about Jeddah. Same with Abu Dhabi," he added. "So you can say it's 50-50."
Mercedes has dominated in Austin since 2014, taking pole every time and winning every year except 2018.
"Austin's one of Lewis's strongest circuits and we know that he's very, very quick around there," said Horner.
At altitude in Mexico City engines lose performance, which, has usually favoured Red Bull's better aerodynamics.
Verstappen won in 2017 and 2018 and only lost to Hamilton in 2019 because of a penalty.
The Dutchman won the last race in Brazil in 2019 but Hamilton has won there twice.
Verstappen also won in Abu Dhabi last year, but Hamilton won the previous two.
Mercedes has won seven straight drivers' and constructors' titles, but Red Bull, and their engine supplier Honda, seem to have closed the gap.
Between 2014 and 2020, Red Bull had six pole positions. This season, Verstappen has eight, while the two Mercedes men have five between them.
"We're fighting at it and we're not giving up anything and to be, at this stage of the championship, leading the drivers', still in touch in the constructors', that's phenomenal," Horner said.