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F1: Max Verstappen is already the champ, but there's a fascinating battle for second

Lewis Hamilton is 30 points behind Sergio Perez with five races to go

SINGAPORE, SINGAPORE - SEPTEMBER 17: Sergio Perez of Mexico driving the (11) Oracle Red Bull Racing RB19 leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team W14 during the F1 Grand Prix of Singapore at Marina Bay Street Circuit on September 17, 2023 in Singapore, Singapore. (Photo by Bryn Lennon - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)
Sergio Perez (R) leads Lewis Hamilton by 30 points for second in the Formula 1 standings. (Photo by Bryn Lennon - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)

Max Verstappen has clinched the Formula 1 world drivers' championship with two months remaining in the season for the second straight season.

But the battle for second — between Verstappen's Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez and Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton — has the potential to be riveting. With five race weekends remaining, Perez holds a 30-point lead.

Hamilton cost himself a fantastic chance to gain more points on Perez with his ill-advised move into Turn 1 at the start of the Qatar Grand Prix nearly two weeks ago.

The seven-time champion failed to get through the first corner of the race when the swooped to the outside of teammate George Russell and eventual race-winner Verstappen. Hamilton started behind both drivers on the soft compound tires, while Verstappen and Russell were on the medium tires. In an attempt to take advantage of his tires’ extra grip, Hamilton tried to pass both drivers in one corner.

That attempt failed spectacularly, as Hamilton collided with his Mercedes teammate and lost a rear wheel as he went spinning into the gravel.

But thanks to Perez’s continued poor form, Hamilton actually cut into Perez’s lead in the points standings over the weekend in Qatar. Perez failed to finish the sprint race the day before after he was taken out in a three-wide crash that included Esteban Ocon and Nico Hulkenberg.

Hamilton was right behind the trio as they all collided and drove right past the wreck. He went on to finish fifth in the sprint and gather four points while Perez didn’t score any.

The crash forced Perez to start the Qatar Grand Prix from the pit lane because of the changes that needed to be made to his car. Perez was able to climb through the field to 10th over the course of the Grand Prix, but scored just one point as Hamilton ultimately cut Perez’s lead by three.

Qatar marked the first time Hamilton failed to finish a race all season and the first time he had failed to score points in a Grand Prix all season. Before Qatar, Hamilton’s worst finish of the season was eighth in Austria and he had finished in the top six in the other 15 races.

What Mercedes has lacked in pace to Red Bull this season it’s made up in consistency. Hamilton has started on the front row just once in 2023. He scored the pole for the Hungarian Grand Prix but lost the lead heading into the first turn and finished fourth. He has just one second-place finish. And that came all the way back in the seventh race of the year in Barcelona.

Hamilton is also on the longest winless streak of his career. He hasn’t won since 2021 in Saudi Arabia as Mercedes has fallen behind Red Bull over the past two seasons. And unless he scores a win before the end of the season, Hamilton has a chance to be the first driver since Ronnie Peterson in 1971 to finish second in the points standings without winning a race. And a lot of that has to do with Perez’s inconsistency.

Until Carlos Sainz won in Singapore, Perez was the only driver not named Verstappen to win an F1 race in 2023. Perez won the second race of the season in Saudi Arabia and won two races later in Azerbaijan. But Verstappen ripped off a 10-race win streak and has won the last two races as Perez has been left in the dust.

After scoring four podium finishes in the first five races, Perez crashed during qualifying at Monaco and was forced to start last. He made up just four places at the incredibly tough-to-pass circuit and his qualifying form has been brutal ever since.

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 28: Sergio Perez of Mexico driving the (11) Oracle Red Bull Racing RB19 on track during the F1 Grand Prix of Monaco at Circuit de Monaco on May 28, 2023 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco. (Photo by Rudy Carezzevoli - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)
The Monaco Grand Prix weekend marked a major turning point in Sergio Perez's season. (Photo by Rudy Carezzevoli - Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)

Perez went five races without starting in the top 10 before he started ninth in Hungary. He’s started on the front row just once since that Monaco wreck and his average starting position of 9.5 ranks eighth among the 20 drivers in the F1 field.

It’s simply impossible to consistently finish well when you’re starting so far back in the field in F1. And while Perez is gaining an average of four positions a race, his average finish of 5.5 is just behind Hamilton. And a big reason why Hamilton has a shot to catch him over the final five races of the season. Especially if Perez can’t consistently figure out how to qualify in the vicinity of his teammate.

With five Grands Prix and two sprint races remaining, Hamilton needs to score just over six points per race weekend more than Perez. That’s doable; Grand Prix winners score 25 points, while second place scores 18, third scores 15 and fourth scores 10 before the points decrease on a sliding scale to a single point for 10th place. Sprint race winners earn eight points and they decrease one at a time down eighth place which earns a single point.

While Hamilton can’t afford another poor finish, neither can Perez. If Perez qualifies poorly at Circuit of the Americas, it won’t be a shock to see Hamilton cutting 10 or more points into the gap.

Perez may also be racing with some added pressure. While Hamilton’s place at Mercedes is secure through 2025 (and further if he wants to keep racing), Perez’s contract is up at the end of the 2024 season. And Red Bull has a history of making sudden driver changes.

Verstappen famously got his start with Red Bull’s senior team when he was called up from the team now known as AlphaTauri after the fourth race of the 2016 season. He won in his first race for Red Bull in Barcelona as an 18-year-old phenom and scored six more podiums that season.

There’s no public indication that Red Bull is willing to make a switch in its second car before the end of Perez’s contract. But Daniel Ricciardo’s presence looms large. Ricciardo rejoined Red Bull as its reserve driver ahead of the 2023 season after parting ways with McLaren. He spent just 10 races in that role before Red Bull removed Nyck De Vries from AlphaTauri and put Ricciardo in that seat.

The move was seen by many as a signal that Red Bull could be giving Ricciardo a tryout of sorts to see if he could replace Perez. But so far, that tryout has been on hold. Ricciardo suffered a hand injury before his third race of the season and has missed the last five races.

Ricciardo is set to return for the final five races of the season. And while no one will confuse AlphaTauri’s equipment with the speed demons that the Red Bull parent team has, his race performances will inevitably be compared to Perez’s. And if Perez can’t keep Hamilton at bay for second and Ricciardo overperforms at AlphaTauri, it may be an offseason full of speculation about Perez’s Formula 1 future.