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Max Verstappen heads to the Russian Grand Prix with a three-position grid penalty awaiting, the result of his skirmish with Lewis Hamilton midway through the previous Formula 1 race.

Unfortunately for the Dutch driver leading the F1 standings, that is not his largest looming problem. There is a larger penalty on the horizon, and how Verstappen and Red Bull Racing handle it may decide the season championship.

It’s the difference between Verstappen earning his first World Drivers’ Championship and Hamilton capturing his record-setting eighth.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen has to serve a penalty at the Russian Grand Prix

Max Verstappen poses with his trophy after the F1 Grand Prix of The Netherlands at Circuit Zandvoort on Sept. 5, 2021, in Zandvoort, Netherlands. | Dan Mullan/Getty Images

The battle for the points lead between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton has been the chief storyline of the 2021 Formula 1 season. Hamilton is bidding for his fifth consecutive title. For a change, this contest is going down to the wire, something that hasn’t happened in F1 since he won the last four races of the 2016 season and nearly wrestled the title from Nico Rosberg.

The tension has increased since Verstappen won the French Grand Prix to match Hamilton’s three victories. An early crash with Hamilton knocked Verstappen out of the British GP, and both went to the sidelines when they collided midway through the Italian GP on Sept. 12.

That altercation generated the three-position penalty that Verstappen must serve this weekend in Sochi. Officials labeled him as “predominantly to blame” after his crash, which concluded with his car on top of Hamilton’s Mercedes.

Sochi has been better for Hamilton than for Verstappen. However, the 2021 edition of Red Bull cars has proven every bit as good as what Mercedes has put on the track. Still, Verstappen faces the prospect of starting behind Hamilton to begin defense of his five-point lead in the standings.

Max Verstappen’s Formula 1 hopes come down to a crucial decision

When the Red Bull team hits the track in Sochi for practice, Verstappen will have more on his mind than the penalty. By the end of qualifying, the organization must decide whether to switch power units.

Formula 1 cars can use three engines per season, which generally means squeezing seven or eight races from each. Verstappen wore out his first engine as expected, but the collision with Hamilton at Silverstone in the 10th race on the schedule sent the Red Bull car hard into a barrier, necessitating a move to the third engine for the Hungarian Grand Prix.

The crash caused a crack between the gearbox and engine. Honda engineers believed they could salvage the power unit, but Red Bull executives aren’t confident that they can get maximum performance from it.

“Unfortunately, it’s in a structural part, so it would be very difficult to do a repair or a cleat on it,” Red Bull team boss Christian Horner told Racing News 365. “That engine has got very little mileage on it, so we’ve looked at it possibly as a Friday engine, we might be able to, but it’s unfortunately unlikely.”

The third engine only has four races on it, so Red Bull likely has a month or more to decide when to swap it out. Rather than going back to the relatively new engine damaged at the British Grand Prix, though, Red Bull will almost certainly give Verstappen a new power unit.

That poses a problem for Red Bull and its star driver.

Red Bull knows there’s a price to pay


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If you’re horrified by the prospect of paying $15,000 for a pre-owned 2019 Honda with 40,000 miles on it, then you might faint in the Honda Formula 1 engine showroom.

According to Motor Sport, the list price of a 1600 cc power unit is about $12 million, but the out-the-door bill of sale is more like $18.2 million. F1 teams know the cost is the price of competing for the world’s most glamorous racing championship.

However, Red Bull is looking at a different cost for installing its fourth engine of the season. Under the rules, surpassing the maximum number of engines comes with a penalty: a 10-position grid penalty for the first race in which that power unit is used.

Max Verstappen surrendering 10 spots when the points battle is so tight could flip the top two positions in the standings, so the issue comes down to picking the right place.

“It’s inevitable we’re going to need to take a penalty,” Red Bull’s Horner conceded. “We’ve probably got a three- or maybe even four-race window in which to do it.”

Ideally, they can identify an upcoming track conducive to passing. Verstappen possesses the talent, and the new engine will deliver the horsepower. Verstappen’s job will be to make up as many of those 10 positions as possible.

His season may depend upon it.

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