When Lewis Hamilton lost the 2021 Formula One world title to Max Verstappen in a controversial final race in Abu Dhabi, few could have anticipated the Briton's struggles in 2022.
Fast forward nine months and the seven-time world champion is staring down the barrel of his first winless season in 15 years.
Hamilton finished fifth behind race winner Verstappen in last weekend's Italian Grand Prix in Monza, and admits that his prospects of tasting victory this year are slim at best.
“We have to be realistic,” Hamilton told reporters.
“That Red Bull is almost unbeatable. It’s going to take some real doing to beat that car.
Verstappen could clinch his second world championship at the next round in Singapore on October 2 after taking the 11th win of his title defence at the Italian GP.
Hamilton started 19th and finished fifth in Monza, but the seven-time world champion faces losing his record of claiming at least one win in each of the seasons he has competed in F1 since his debut campaign in 2007.
More concerning for the Brit and his army of fans is the fact the Mercedes ace can't see how the team will be able to properly compete with the Red Bull cars in 2022.
“Performance-wise we have not caught them, and we don’t have upgrades coming to enable us to overtake them. So it’s going to take some fortune going our way to win," he added.
“It’s not impossible, because we could have beaten them in Budapest. But Max is generally chilled at the front, so you can never tell their true pace.”
Verstappen’s fifth win in succession sees him hold a commanding 116-point lead over Ferrari's Charles Leclerc with only six rounds remaining and 164 points available.
If Verstappen is victorious in Singapore, and gains a bonus point for the fastest lap, he will be crowned world champion for a second time if Leclerc finishes no higher than eighth, and teammate Sergio Perez misses out on a podium spot.
In Monza, Verstappen’s drive from seventh to first ended behind the safety car after Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren could not be removed in time for a re-start.
Max Verstappen wins amid chorus of boos at Monza
The incident saw the Red Bull driver jeered by Ferrari fans when he was presented with the trophy on the podium, but Verstappen said: “At the end of the day, I am here to try and win the race, which I did.
“Of course, some people cannot appreciate that because they passionately support another team. But it is not going to spoil my day. I am just enjoying the moment.”
The safety car incident inevitably drew a response from Hamilton and Mercedes boss Toto Wolff, who argued that last year's season finale in Abu Dhabi should also have finished in the same manner.
“It always brings memories back – that’s the rule it should be, right?” Hamilton pondered to Sky Sports F1.
“So it’s only one time in the history of the sport they haven’t done the rule (in Abu Dhabi).”
Wolff told Sky Sports F1: "This time, they followed the rules."
"The race director’s call will be criticised. Maybe they could have done it a lap earlier or let [George Russell] through. But at least they followed the rules.
“They accepted the race ended with a Safety Car. This is how it should be.”
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