It may still be a little early to proclaim “The king is dead, long live the king” but after Max Verstappen’s win in Sunday’s Mexico Grand Prix, the coronation of the Dutchman looks more and more likely.
For the last four seasons and for six of the last seven years, Lewis Hamilton has ruled the track.
The only time he failed to win the world title in that time was when he was outsmarted by his Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in 2016. Otherwise, the Briton has been the undisputed top dog.
This year, however, the 36-year-old’s reign appears to be coming to an end. With four races remaining he is second in the standings, 19 points behind the young pretender Verstappen, 24, who just three races ago trailed by two points.
There is still time for Hamilton to come through on the rails and snatch an unprecedented eighth world title but current form, which has seen him win just once in the last eight races, suggests otherwise.
More telling than the end result was the manner of Sunday’s defeat as Verstappen’s Red Bull, starting in third, blew away both Mercedes cars on the opening turn before easing away for a comfortable ninth victory of the season.
Hamilton clung on for second place ahead of the other Red Bull of Sergio Perez but he knows the title is slipping away, even if he posted some typically punchy words on his Instagram account on Monday.
“I left it all out there and sometimes that’s just not enough,” Hamilton said.
“We pick ourselves up, dig deeper than we ever have before, and keep on fighting.”
“Now we are full focus on the remaining races, and man I love Brazil. Push on, still we rise.”
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff put a brave face on the defeat, insisting that Hamilton can still make history this year.
“I am a pretty realistic person, but I love motor racing because anything can happen,” he said.
“None of us are leaving this circuit with the mentality that the championship is slipping away from us.
“There are four races to go, four wins to take, four DNFs (Did Not Finish) to suffer and we will continue fighting.
“We know we have a great team and we have it all to win.”
Amid the sabre-rattling, however, there was also a hint of pragmatism from the Mercedes boss.
“When you look at the mathematical probability I would rather be 19 points ahead than behind,” said Wolff.
‘Just too quick’
Hamilton, who has won five races this season including his 100th GP victory, has never been one to give up a race of any sort and Verstappen can expect a feisty response in Brazil next weekend.
“Naturally I feel we need to be winning every race, we need those extra points,” he said after Sunday’s race.
“That was the goal going into the last race and the race before that and here this weekend. But they’re just too quick.
“I’m giving it everything we’ve got but unfortunately it’s not enough at the moment to compete with them.”
Verstappen also knows that the pendulum has swung to his advantage.
“It’s of course looking good,” the Dutchman said after the race. “But also it can turn around real quickly.”
His Red Bull team principal Christian Horner is also playing a cagey game, taking nothing for granted.
“There are a maximum of 107 points still at stake so we are far from finished,” said Horner.
“Reliability is going to be crucial, everything will have to be successful every weekend, the strategy, the pit stops…”
Red Bull, who now trail Mercedes by just a single point in the constructors’ championship as well, will be more than happy to head to Interlagos where Verstappen won the last race held there in 2019.
But the change of scene also offers Mercedes perhaps Mercedes’ last chance to regroup and for Hamilton to claw back some points — although Wolff hardly sounded optimistic.
“We leave Mexico — the circuit we probably regarded as one of the worst ones for us — and we go to Brazil which hasn’t been much better in the past,” he said.
“We are going to give it all and try to fight back.”
After Brazil, the teams head straight to Doha for the first Qatar Grand Prix before two concluding rounds in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi on December 5 and December 12.