By Alan Baldwin
(Reuters) – Michael Schumacher was still racing, and Lewis Hamilton only a one-time world champion, the last time rival teams took the Formula One title battle down to the last two rounds of the season.
Not since 2012, when Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel faced Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso in a final race title-decider in Brazil, has there been a run-in like the one between Max Verstappen and Mercedes’ now seven times world champion Hamilton.
But this one is different, with eras to be ended and Formula One records beckoning.
“It’s different because we’ve got two incredibly close teams, it’s different because as a team we’re fighting for uncharted territory,” Hamilton told reporters on Thursday ahead of the season’s penultimate race and first in Saudi Arabia.
“Nobody’s ever won eight (successive) titles, team or driver.”
Mercedes have won the last seven drivers’ and constructors’ championships but this year could break the sport’s longest period of domination by a single team and crown Verstappen for the first time.
Since 2012 the battle has gone the distance only twice and on both occasions it was between Hamilton and Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg.
Verstappen needs to score 18 points more than Hamilton to end matters in Jeddah this weekend.
Otherwise the battle between the 24-year-old challenger and 36-year-old defending champion, a rivalry reminiscent of that in the late 1980s and early 1990s between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, goes on to Abu Dhabi.
Mercedes can still make it eight constructors’ crowns in a row but they would need to score 40 points more than Red Bull for that to happen this weekend.
Hamilton is eight points behind Verstappen. A victory with fastest lap in Jeddah for the Briton would see the pair go level on points if Verstappen is second.
Should they fail to score in Abu Dhabi, Verstappen would take it on wins.
That would be closer even than 1984, when Austrian Niki Lauda took his third title by half a point from eventual four times champion Prost.
The 1964 battle between Ferrari’s John Surtees and BRM’s Graham Hill ended with the former as champion by a single point despite his fellow-Briton scoring more overall. In those days, only the six best results counted.
In 1988 Senna won the first of his three titles despite also scoring fewer points than McLaren team mate Prost, with only the best 11 results counting.
In 2010 there were four contenders all the way to the final race with Vettel coming through despite not having led the championship until then.
Hamilton was one of them and already a veteran of such cliffhangers, losing by a single point to Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen in the Briton’s 2007 debut season with McLaren.
He took his first title in 2008 with a pass on the last corner of the last lap of the final race.
In total 14 championships since 1950 have been won at the penultimate round, most recently Jenson Button with Brawn GP in 2009, and 29 at the last race.
Five titles in a row were decided in the penultimate race from 1987-91.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Toby Davis)Internet Explorer Channel Network