Spa-Francorchamps, Aug. 26, (dpa/GNA) - A few races ago Max Verstappen held a 32-point lead in the Formula One world championship and title-holder Lewis Hamilton was almost down and out.
But a dramatic, and controversial, turnaround in the two races before the mid-season break have restored the advantage to Mercedes and Hamilton, leaving Verstappen and his Red Bull team with much to ponder going into the resumption at Sunday's Belgian Grand Prix.
“I am of course excited to go back to Spa," said Verstappen. "It’s my favourite track and it’s really cool to drive with so many high speed corners and elevation changes."
The classic circuit in the Ardennes will prove a stunning setting for the first of up to 12 more battles between the pair though Verstappen has never finished better than third there in F1 while Hamilton has four victories.
Verstappen will be buoyed by tens of thousands of Dutch fans making the short trip to support him though ahead of his first F1 race in the Netherlands when Zandvoort finally returns to the calendar a week later.
“I’m also looking forward to seeing all the fans who will be coming to support us, and it will be cool to see so much orange in the grandstands again as they couldn’t be there last year," he said.
"I also think it is a good place to reset our championship fight and I’m well prepared and feeling good ahead of the weekend.”
Both men expressed a desire to relax over the break but Hamilton has regularly shown top form in the second half of the campaign, streaking away from rivals to win previously tight title battles in 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018.
And in 2016, when he lost out to team-mate Nico Rosberg, he was arguably only undone by engine failure in Malaysia.
"This has definitely been one of the most intense F1 seasons that I can remember, so far," said Mercedes team-chief Toto Wolff.
"The battle is far from over and after a few weeks away from the track, we're all really excited to get back to work."
Potentially decisive is how Mercedes' upgrades to their car compare to Red Bull. A clear change could not be fairly evaluated as Verstappen crashed out the British race following contact with Hamilton and both were forced into recovery drives after an early mass pile up in Hungary.
Wolff said the car "feels in a better place ... but we know there is a long road ahead and so much can still happen in this season of ups and downs."
Valtteri Bottas is clinging to the other race seat for Mercedes amid rumours he could be replaced by George Russell of Williams while Sergio Perez must also step up for Red Bull as they bid for a first constructors' title since 2013.
McLaren and Ferrari will duel for third in the championship while Alpine and Aston Martin will also expect bigger things now former champions Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel are accustomed to their new vehicles.