Verstappen lays down the championship gauntlet

Can anyone stop Max Verstappen from marching to a maiden title? Defending champion Lewis Hamilton has his doubts.

This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.

The term grand chelem is elusive in the Formula 1 history books, but it’s a statistic that underscores dominance like few others.

Pole, victory, every lap led and fastest lap of the race — only 25 drivers in F1 history have ever turned in a grand prix weekend clean and comprehensive enough to claim a motorsport grand slam.

Max Verstappen took his first at the Austrian Grand Prix in an utterly imperious performance.

From the moment his Red Bull Racing machine rolled out of its garage for the second race in a row at the Red Bull Ring it looked destined to dominate.

Verstappen topped two of three practice sessions, missing the full sweep only because Honda is now so confident in its power unit that it saves its juiciest power modes for later in the weekend.

He topped every segment in qualifying, extending his advantage over Lewis Hamilton week to week in the pole shootout.

And he cleared off at the front so quickly he had time to make an extra pit stop just for safety before belting in a best lap more than 1.5 seconds quicker than anyone else managed all afternoon.

“Pretty insane,” he said out of the car. “I’m a bit amazed myself how today went. I didn’t expect it to be like this.”

It was dominance of a kind F1 has grown accustomed to over recent years. Hamilton-esque, even.

Except Hamilton, a six-time grand slam getter, was relegated to fourth in another difficult weekend for Mercedes.

The Mercedes car has struggled at both rounds in Austria, its aerodynamic package and turbocharger ill at ease at the 700-metre altitude. Down by 0.25 seconds per lap, neither Hamilton nor teammate Valtteri Bottas stood a chance.

For Hamilton it’s been particularly painful. He started the double-header 12 points down on Verstappen after a close-fought loss in France; today his deficit has almost tripled to 32 points, more than a clear race win.

With nine races down in a 20-plus race schedule, the Briton still has time. But to put the gap into context, he would have to beat Verstappen to victory four races in a row just to get back into the ballpark without some serious bad luck on the Dutchman’s part.

And form is seemingly against him. While the Austrian circuit may have exaggerated the differences between the cars, Red Bull Racing brought significant upgrades to both rounds. Mercedes has just one last update, due at the next round.

In other words, what we see from here on in is all we’re getting.

“We are praying for a different scenario in the next race, but you look at their car and it is just on rails,” Hamilton said dispiritedly. “Obviously he’s pretty much just cruising ahead, so there’s not really much I can do about it.”

The next run of races should better suit the Mercedes car, taking us back to the relative closeness of the races before the tam’s two-week Austrian nightmare. But even then Hamilton’s best-case scenario is only to contend for victories, not to have the chance to reverse the deficit completely.

Hamilton’s challenge now isn’t to reinvoke his grand slam dominance; it’s to chip away at Verstappen’s lead in the hope he can take the title down to the wire in Abu Dhabi in December.

But that applies only if Mercedes can write off its last fortnight as a blip, and the British Grand Prix will be the test.

Contend at Silverstone and stay in the fight. Fail to arrest the slide and fall out of touch with the lead.

Lewis Hamilton has everything riding on his home grand prix on 18 July.