(CNN)Mercedes entered the 2021 Formula One season seeking an eighth-consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ championship double.

That double is still possible but with two races to go, Red Bull and Max Verstappen have proven quite the irritants to Mercedes during 2021.

While Mercedes leads the constructors’ championship, Verstappen holds a slender eight-point lead over rival Lewis Hamilton in the drivers’ standings and the pair’s back-and-forth title dogfight has contributed to one of the most exciting F1 seasons in recent history, quashing any fears of another one-horse race.

The Mercedes juggernaut

According to Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, for the 24-year-old Verstappen to take the drivers’ title — given the strength of the opposition — would be his team’s “biggest achievement” since entering the sport.

“Mercedes have been the benchmark, and they’ve knocked it out of the park in terms of where those standards have been the last few years,” Horner told CNN Sport’s Amanda Davies at the recent Qatar Grand Prix.

“To be able to break that … it just shows in life that anything is possible. The spirit that we’ve shown demonstrates, if you want something bad enough, you can achieve it.”

Now into his 16th year as team principal, Horner presided over a Sebastian Vettel-inspired Red Bull golden era between 2010 and 2013 that reaped four consecutive championship wins.

Since then, the championship battle has gone to the final race only twice, and even then, it was to decide which of Mercedes’ two drivers — Hamilton or Nico Rosberg — would take the title.

Hamilton’s historic seventh triumph last year was the team’s most dominant yet, wrapped up on race 14 of 17.

Yet Horner “always believed” that Red Bull would be back at F1’s summit again one day — a realization that he credits to a perfect trifecta of factors, starting with the team’s switch of engine providers from Renault to Honda in 2019.

“We just needed the tools to do it, and I think Honda has been a big factor in that,” Horner said.

“To think we could take on that juggernaut with primarily the same car … but the team, through difficult times, really came together and came up with a phenomenal car.

“Many of the people, when I look around the engineering office, were there in 2013. Four of the people out of the seven on the pit wall were here in Brazil and Abu Dhabi in 2013. So we haven’t forgotten how to win — we just haven’t had the tools to win.

“Now, we have a great driver, we have a great engine and I know we have a great team. So it’s just the combination of those three elements coming together.”

Super Max

Verstappen has dazzled this season, with his nine wins and poles eclipsing Hamilton’s seven and four respectively.

However, back-to-back wins in Brazil and Qatar enabled Hamilton to cut Verstappen’s lead in recent weeks, though the Dutchman will clinch his first championship title if he can finish ahead of the Briton in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi this month.

For Horner, it would be a “deserved” victory for a young driver who impresses him as much with his mentality as he does with his racing skill.

“The way Max has developed, the way he’s conducted himself … it’s been absolutely first-rate. He’s driving at a phenomenally high level,” Horner said.

“He’s a very straightforward guy to work with. He’s not one that needs big in-depth heart-to-hearts. He’s a racer, he just wants to get on with it.

“You see him be a bit intolerant with that at times, but you just know when you bolt him in the car and strap him in that he’s going to give you everything. You’re going to get 110% every time he’s sitting in that car.”

In September, Verstappen responded to Hamilton’s suggestion of nerves with a decidedly sarcastic response: “I’m so nervous, I can hardly sleep. It’s so horrible to fight for a title. I really hate it.”

So it may come as no surprise that Horner has not sensed anything that would contradict his driver’s outward display of self-assurance.

“He’s certainly not showing any and I haven’t detected any with him,” Horner said.

“I think he’s just enjoying driving the car. He’s 24 years of age. Do 24-year-olds feel nerves?

“He knows that he’s got a wonderful opportunity and he’s going to give it everything. He’s got nothing to lose and he’s got everything to gain.”

But does Horner see Verstappen as the favorite?

“Absolutely not,” replied the Red Bull team principal.

“I think it’s 50-50. I really do. I think it’s down to the fine margins and the cars have been pretty close at most of the races.

“We need a few things to go our way, but of course, we can do it.”

Standards sparring

The drivers’ title fight this season has been a battle in every sense of the word, waged both on and off the track from the outset.

On-track tensions peaked at a dramatic Italian Grand Prix in September, when Hamilton and Verstappen collided and were both subsequently ruled out of the race.

Meanwhile, off-track feuds — often embodied by Horner and his Mercedes counterpart Toto Wolff — continued with rows regarding driving standards at the most recent Grand Prix in Qatar.

Following the previous weekend’s Sao Paulo Grand Prix — which saw Verstappen allegedly push Hamilton wide when defending an overtake on lap 48 — Mercedes requested a a review of the Red Bull driver’s race.

Stewards at the time had not deemed a further investigation necessary, and the FIA subsequently dismissed Mercedes’ video review request, but the two title rivals continued to clash over the incident following qualifying in Qatar.

“I think at the end it was pretty clear,” Verstappen said of the previous week’s driving briefing, to which Hamilton replied: “No. It’s not clear.

“Every driver except for Max was asking for clarity but it wasn’t very clear. It’s still not clear what the limits of the tracks are,” Hamilton added.

Despite the off-track sparring, Horner hopes the final word is said where it matters: on the circuit.

“This year has been so intense — on track, off track, in the media pen, wherever, and it’s been a very different type of championship,” Horner said.

“All the drama off track is a distraction. And ultimately, what I sincerely hope over these last few races is it’s settled on the circuit and that we don’t end up in a steward’s room or appeal hearing in Paris or anything like that.

“We just want to make sure that it is a fair and level playing ground because it would be gutting to lose this championship on something that didn’t comply with the regs.”

[Read More…]