Hamilton vs Verstappen — finally the F1 battle we've been waiting for? MPH

Mark Hughes

Formula 1 has been waiting for a Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen title fight for years. With Red Bull looking strong in testing, can 2021 final deliver? asks Mark Hughes

Max Verstappen talks to Lewis Hamilton

Head to head on track in 2021? We don't have long to find out

Dan Istitene/F1 via Getty Images

Mercedes’ chief strategist James Vowles wasn’t making any bones about where the team stood in testing last week: “No one up and down the paddock will be able to pinpoint exactly where they are, but there are a few trends. I would say Red Bull are ahead on performance, they are the class act from the test, but it is a test, it is not a race and [the Bahrain GP] is one event out of 23. Are we going to have a close season? I would say so.”

If that turns out to be the case, it puts obvious focus on the prospect of Lewis Hamilton vs Max Verstappen, a battle that F1 has been promising but not quite delivering for years. It’s a fight that would light up F1, a straight duel between the champ and pretender, 13 years between them. If the cars are indeed close, can the guy with all the records and who is already thinking aloud about what his post-F1 career might look like, summon the depth of desire required to take on the live wire, fearless adventurer? The guy who Hamilton has admitted in the past he’s uneasy with in wheel-to-wheel battles because he’s never sure what he’s going to do. In their encounters so far, it’s invariably been with Hamilton trying to win a championship and Verstappen with nothing to lose. But if they are in the position of having to fight the other as they chase the same goal? Do their approaches change? Does Hamilton get forced to be more steely and stubbornly unyielding in their duels? Show that, if it comes to it, he’s prepared for them both to crash out rather than surrender his piece of track? Does Verstappen have to temper his all-out ambushing attack style? Where will the new equilibrium between them be? Who has the last gramme of qualifying speed in the crucial moment? Which of them deals better with the wet track? Who has the greater psychological strength and endurance?

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What of their respective team-mates Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez? Their roles and how they compare will be similarly fascinating. What will be the impact of their performances on the dynamics of the two teams? Historically Bottas has been fast enough to beat Hamilton three or four times per season. Could Perez do the same at Red Bull to Verstappen? If not, does that make Red Bull’s task easier? From a team perspective, there’s an obvious sweet spot for the support driver’s performance to fall into – not quite fast enough to threaten the number one, but fast enough to be right with him and therefore available to use strategically in support of winning the lead driver the race. Obviously, no driver willingly wants to fall into that role but against a megastar it’s somehow inevitable, something that Bottas has been fighting for years. Perez, as an experienced old hand, is probably wired up to be accepting of that without it sending him into a confidence crisis.

Bottas is probably faster than Perez over a qualifying lap. Their respective records against their team-mates would suggest as much. But Perez is probably better with the tyres on race day and possibly more psychologically robust. He is also extremely robust wheel-to-wheel. He does not give an inch and can be absolutely ruthless. Bottas can likewise be totally uncompromising in defence.

Max Verstappen ahead of Lewis Hamilton in 2020

A level playing field between Red Bull and Mercedes would see driver talent make the difference


Then there’s the dynamic of the two teams relative to each other. In the last few seasons Mercedes has usually had more than enough of a performance advantage over Red Bull to allow it to be relatively conservative on strategies. Red Bull has become renowned as operationally super-sharp, going for the aggressive undercuts, making the fastest pit stops, pouncing upon safety car opportunities. But it’s easier to adopt that stance when you are not chasing a world title or when you are so far ahead of the third-placed team that there’s no downside risk. How would the Mercedes pitwall cope with the pressure of having to pull the strategy pin at precisely the right moment, whether in attack or defence? Could Red Bull retain that aggressive operational spark when one wrong move could be a title-deciding one?

All these captivating questions only come to life if the two cars are evenly matched. There are plenty who fear that testing was just a mirage and that Mercedes will turn up at the first race and breeze it. That would indeed be disappointing. But so would a Red Bull which retained the extent of its testing advantage. It would have a dynamic quality of excitement for a race or two. But if it came to be the norm and we just had dominance of a different colour, it would be a pity. Here’s hoping the W12 and RB16B are so close that only the quality of the drivers’ input makes the difference.