1 corner, 6 years apart: How Chinese GP exposed shift in Hamilton - Verstappen dynamic


An impatient Max Verstappen was forced off track in his rash bid to pass Lewis Hamilton at the 2018 Chinese GP. Last weekend, in the same situation, at the same corner, he bided his time. Mark Hughes examines the shifting statures of the two champions

Lewis Hamilton leads Max Verstappen in 2018 F1 Chinese Grand Prix

Hamilton leads Verstappen in Shanghai, 2018

Lars Baron/Getty Images

There was a moment in Shanghai’s sprint race last Saturday where Max Verstappen was catching the race-leading Lewis Hamilton hand-over-fist as they approached the quick left-hander of Turn 7. It had been just like this in the late stages of the 2018 Chinese Grand Prix, Verstappen so much faster that he was sure to overtake soon. Back then his tyres were 11 laps newer, thanks to a late race safety car after Mercedes and Ferrari had made their final stops, but before Red Bull had. So Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, in that order, rejoined with their previous deficit to the front wiped — and with a massive grip advantage to be exploited as soon as the safety car came in.

Hamilton had been dismayed to be told before the restart that the Red Bulls behind him were on new tyres. He knew what was coming. He’d had a difficult race and was lying third, with his team-mate Valtteri Bottas leading from Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari. But now he looked set to be finishing fifth. Such an outcome with the current Mercedes would be cause for some small celebration, but back then was disastrous.

He knew what was coming as Verstappen appeared in his mirrors with 17 laps to go. The Red Bull gained massively as they accelerated through the Turn 6 hairpin and up the short straight towards 7. He knew Verstappen would be through this lap, probably at the obvious place – the Turn 14 hairpin at the end of the lap. But maybe, just maybe, he could at least make things difficult for him.

Lewis Hamilton shakes hands with Max Verstappen ahead of the 2018 F1 Chinese Grand Prix

Verstappen and Hamilton before 2018 Chinese GP

Max Verstappen talks to Lewis Hamilton after 2024 F1 Chinese GP sprint race

The world champions after 2024 Chinese sprint

As they raced towards Turn 7 Hamilton left a tempting gap to his outside. He’d read Verstappen – that evolution of Verstappen, at least – perfectly.  This Verstappen – denied title-calibre cars, now in his fourth season and watching Hamilton dance from one championship to another, totally certain in the knowledge that he could take on and beat anyone, absolutely anyone, regardless of reputation – was bursting to prove a point. By ambushing a victory out of nowhere, denying Hamilton along the way. Lewis’s car may as well have had a target on its rear wing as Verstappen homed in. Now, what was this? Hamilton had left a gap on the outside and had so much less momentum through there than Verstappen could carry on his new tyres. Here was a present laid out in front of him. Barely even lifting, Max moved for the outside, probably carrying an extra 10mph over the Mercedes…

But sometimes just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Verstappen had just been played. Side-by-side they went through there, Hamilton’s car then twitching into oversteer so it needed more track width – obliging Verstappen to leave the track to avoid contact. Had the Mercedes just oversteered because it was out of grip? Or had Hamilton induced it? As one Red Bull scampered off across the run-off, so the other one – Ricciardo’s – zapped both Hamilton and Verstappen in one move. Daniel would follow up with two insanely well-judged out-braking moves on Vettel and Bottas to take an unlikely victory. Verstappen, his composure in shreds now, rejoined and subsequently put the move on Hamilton – at Turn 14 – that he should have waited for the first time. But his attempt at a repeat on Vettel was wildly optimistic. They collided and both were passed by Hamilton and Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari. Only fourth across the line, once Verstappen had a 10sec penalty applied for the Vettel incident, he was an official fifth in a race he should have won.

Lewis Hamilton overtakes spun Red Bull of Max Verstappen in 2018 F1 Chinese Grand Prix

Hamilton re-passes Verstappen after the Red Bull driver collided with Vettel in 2018 Chinese GP


Hamilton played the perfect plausible deniability card perfectly afterwards. “Yeah, I don’t know what he was doing trying to pass there,” he said, as if he’d had nothing to do with it. Had Hamilton ever known of a passing attempt working at that corner, he was asked. A moment of apparent thought (very Schumacher-like), then: “Not of a top driver, no…”

He knew Verstappen was coming. Both around his outside at Turn 7 – and in the seasons to come. Max was so obviously the one, he who’d marked himself out, who was one day going to challenge Hamilton’s status as king of the pride. Just not today. Not for another three seasons, as it turned out.

It’s sad that we got only one season of them in equal cars. All those seasons before, the two-and-a-bit seasons since ’21, could have been truly epic. So this time, in Saturday’s sprint, as Hamilton, in a rare race-leading reprise of his earlier career, knew as Verstappen approached him up to Turn 7 in a vastly faster car, there was no point in fighting it. There was half the race still to go and the Red Bull was around 1sec per lap faster than the Merc. Similarly, Verstappen totally at ease now with his status and the habit of winning, didn’t even consider having a look at Turn 7. Why ever would he do that, when it would be such a simple pass a few corners later, at the end of the DRS zone? The dynamic was so very different to last time. So around there they went, line-astern, like two strangers with no history who just happened to be in the same place at the same time. Then the simple out-braking move into the hairpin. Then the Red Bull’s 10sec winning margin 10 laps later.

Lewis Hamilton examines the Red Bull of Max Verstappen

Hamilton searches for the secret of Red Bull’s speed in Shanghai, 2024

Fred Lee/Getty Images

That would be the highlight of Merc’s weekend. A couple of hours later Hamilton qualified 18th for the Grand Prix. Might we ever see a Hamilton coda? We see flashes, but this car is never going to be a Red Bull rival. Might we see it at Ferrari? Might one day in the future a red car be gaining fast on Verstappen as they approach Turn 7? Would the potential enormity of the moment skew Hamilton’s judgement if Verstappen could play him?