Lewis Hamilton v Max Verstappen battle echoes F1’s great rivalries of old
Formula One finally has the title fight it has craved, with blow and counter-blow. Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen are locked in a rivalry as gripping as some of the great head-to-heads and the intensity of a thrilling championship is set only to ramp up as Sunday’s Mexican Grand Prix heralds a potentially nail-biting run-in to close the season.
Hamilton and Verstappen have had two serious clashes this year, both life-threatening. Despite the risks, it is clear neither is going to yield any time soon in the heat of competition between two such singular and determined drivers.
Both understand what is at stake. A clash leading to a DNF would all but end their chances, with five races remaining. Red Bull’s Verstappen enjoys a 12-point advantage over Hamilton and Mercedes before the race at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez in the closest fought inter-team championship battle since the turbo-hybrid era began in 2014.
The entreaty from their teams is to keep it clean, as doubtless is the logical thought process of the drivers. The indications remain, however, that both teams will be ignored if the pair are vying for position on track.
At the last round in Austin they went head to head in practice when Hamilton refused to back out of his line, leaving an angry Verstappen giving him the finger. It was, at once, a nothing incident and one indicative of where they are now.
At Monza, Verstappen attempted to pass Hamilton through the first chicane. Hamilton squeezed him, the Dutchman refused to cede position and hit the sausage kerbs; his car was launched on top of Hamilton’s and only the halo cockpit protection device prevented a huge impact with Hamilton’s head. The incident ended their races.
In July, Hamilton’s attempt to pass Verstappen up the inside of Copse at Silverstone ended with the Dutchman skewered off into the barriers at 180mph. Hamilton was penalised for that, as was Verstappen for Monza.
Neither driver believed they were at fault. Neither is willing to show weakness. Their cars are remarkably closely matched and although Red Bull were expectant of enjoying an advantage in Mexico where the thin air at altitude works to the strengths of their turbo and their high-rake design, it was Mercedes who were on top in qualifying. That they will go wheel to wheel again seems inevitable and it is likely to bear the hallmarks of the great rivalries – a refusal to back down. It has the unforgiving, ruthless air of Ayrton Senna versus Alain Prost and everything that was so enthralling about their battle
Indeed, the Mercedes team principal, Toto Wolff, suggested this past week that should it come down to the final race he could envision a Senna-Prost scenario of one taking the other out if it would secure the title. Hamilton and Verstappen denied they would do so but Wolff was perhaps just reading the room accurately.
Both team principals have acknowledged the reality of the situation. “Max is a no-quarter kind of guy; Lewis has demonstrated that he doesn’t want to give anything either and when you get two racers of that mentality, you get incidents,” said Red Bull’s Christian Horner.
Wolff has confirmed that a level of combative behaviour was inevitable. “The point is that these two are racing for a drivers’ championship and you can’t expect them to have velvet gloves on,” he said.
There is an inescapable sense this simmering conflict has been escalating and is now an eyeball-to-eyeball standoff. Early in the season, with the experience of playing the long game that has helped win him seven titles, Hamilton was circumspect around Verstappen, pointedly noting: “I’m in the position that I’m in because I don’t get too aggressive when I don’t need to be.”
Wolff has been ringside for what has developed since, as Verstappen has shown he will be uncompromising and is in this title fight to the finish. “The change of approach is that Lewis decided not to bail out any more when he thinks that the corner is his,” Wolff said after Monza.
Ron Dennis, the former McLaren team principal who nurtured Hamilton’s career and brought him into F1 at McLaren in 2007, is convinced neither has any intent of giving ground on the run-in to the title. “One thing that both of them doesn’t want to show the other is that they are going to back off, that they are going to be intimidated,” he said. “It’s a couple of young stags rutting.”
Verstappen’s style has been clear since his first F1 race at the age 17 in 2015: he will go for a chance and does so in the expectation his opponent will give way. It has paid off in the past and cost him too but only now in a fight for the title does his technique carry real jeopardy. His insistence on elbows-out, no-compromise racing is a far more costly and indeed dangerous prospect when it comes up against another driver unwilling to accept it. The immovable object and the unstoppable force.
The respect between the two seems to be intact, certainly they are making the right noises in public as they have all season, but they know there is a world of difference between talking and split-second decision-making in the crucible of competition on a Sunday. When the two fighters square off again in Mexico, expect no quarter once more.