Risky flashpoints ahead if Hamilton and Verstappen can't cool F1 rivalry


Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen's F1 title battle will never be the same after Silverstone. But they need to turn down the heat to avoid colliding at a less-forgiving spot, says Damien Smith, talking to John Watson

Max Verstappen speaks to Lewis Hamilton at the 2021 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix

Verstappen and Hamilton at Imola

Dan Istitene/F1 via Getty Images

“I hope Lewis has got a good security guys when he goes to Zandvoort,” quipped John Watson when I caught up with him last week in the wake of the British Grand Prix.

The 1981 British GP winner is never short of a spiky opinion or three on current affairs, but there was a serious point behind his cracks, and it was one that had occurred on this end of the line, too. There’s an awful lot of venom being whipped up around Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen right now, and not all of it by disgusting racist trolls on (anti-)social media. Red Bull, led predominantly by Christian Horner, laid on the criticism of Hamilton pretty thick in the aftermath of Silverstone, and ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix this weekend, it’s time to turn down the dial and take some of the heat out of the situation – before someone really gets hurt.

Horner’s anger in the immediate aftermath of the Copse collision was entirely understandable, given the 51G impact his driver had just survived and the sorry state of Verstappen’s Red Bull. The broadcast and utterly pointless lobbying of Michael Masi was unseemly, as was Toto Wolff’s trot up to the race director’s office mid-red flag. But this is a sport driven by human passions as much as cutting-edge technology, and in the heat of the moment, strong reactions were only natural.

I have a gut feeling that Lewis started that race in a mode for a single qualifying lap

But plenty of time has now passed. Views on the clash remain split, of course, but for many seasoned observers, this was a racing incident for which both drivers carried a share of responsibility, and in the current F1 climate – where someone usually has to carry the can – it was probably about right that Hamilton should pick up some sort of penalty. Whether 10 seconds was enough depends on your side of the fence. Whatever, it’s gone, it’s over – what counts now is Verstappen’s next move. The 23-year-old is headstrong, aggressive and fiery enough as it is – without Horner or anyone else at Red Bull further stoking his fire. Although Wattie, tongue in cheek (I think), cares to differ.

“Christian was clearly very angry and upset about it,” said John. “He is normally very measured in what he says. But he was a very angry guy. I’d have stoked it up more, I’d have been pouring petrol on that fire in the interviews…

“They thought they had the grand prix sewn up based on what they did in the sprint race. If they could lead the opening lap they could win the race. I think Mercedes acknowledged that fact as well. I have a gut feeling that Lewis started that race in a mode for a single qualifying lap, he clearly had horsepower I’d not seen in a race configuration. Get in the lead and Lewis could control the race. But if Verstappen gets in the lead on lap one it was going to be really difficult to come back because he had the quicker package.”

Wreckage of Max Verstappen's car at the 2021 British Grand Prix

The sorry sight of Verstappen’s Red Bull after Silverstone clash

Grand Prix Photo

Like most ex-drivers, Watson carries a great deal of respect for Hamilton. “Lewis is a really clean race driver, I’ve got great respect for his driving and not just because he wins a lot of races. He does it in a way which I would be happy to race against. But he got himself into a position where he’d gone in so deep the car was always going to wash out, and Max got to the point where he turned hard – you could see it on the onboard – believing that Lewis was either going to vanish because he’s a magician or Max just ignored him to take his line. It had disaster written all over it.”

It was probably naïve to think such a clash could be avoided during what has already been a fabulous cut-and-thrust duel between F1’s two pre-eminent performers in 2021. But up to the British round, a sense that there was too much to lose had kept them apart. That wasn’t the case at Silverstone, where Hamilton was facing an already alarming points gap to Verstappen widening beyond a point of realistic salvation. Consciously or otherwise, he must have felt compelled to make something happen. But to suggest this was “dirty driving”, as Horner claimed, that he was trying to take out his rival, was beyond sense. That’s not Lewis Hamilton. Even his vocal critics should be able to give him that.

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So what is Horner’s next move? How will he handle this one? This is actually new territory for him. Dealing with Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber was an entirely different story because they were in the same team. This time, there’s his own camp – and that of a clear and defined ‘enemy’. And if that is the mindset he takes, which appears to be the case from what he said in the heat of Silverstone, that could be dangerous.

“I don’t know whether Max has learnt from the incident or he’ll just steam on saying ‘it wasn’t my fault’,” said Watson during our chat. “I’m sure Christian is going to drum that into him: ‘don’t ever think that was your fault, my friend. Hamilton did that deliberately’. That sort of thing. There will be a lot of poisoning of the waters at Red Bull.”

“After Hungary, they are going to Spa. I just hope they don’t get silly going through Eau Rouge and Raidillon, or up through Blanchimont. Monza likewise, there are parts that can be troublesome through Curva Grande.”

But it’s Zandvoort, for the first Dutch GP since 1985, between Spa and Monza, that has John worried the most. “The place where fate will be tempted will be Zandvoort,” he says. “When you go into that Hugenholtz hairpin, which is now banked, the run out of there and up the hill is going to be 180-190mph for an F1 car. If you want to go toe to toe with someone you better make sure you’re on the right part of the race track, otherwise you won’t end up in the sand-dunes, you’ll end up in the bloody sea!

Max Verstappen drives his Red Bull at Zandvoort in 2020

Will this year’s title contenders come unstuck on Zandvoort’s banking?

Red Bull

“Let’s wait and see, I’ll reserve judgement until after practice and qualifying. But Zandvoort is a small circuit and the Dutch are going to be out there. It’ll be like the Battle of the Boyne all over again, but instead of the Protestants and Catholics it’ll be Red Bull vs Mercedes!”

We’ve all been crying out for a proper duel in F1 since Nico Rosberg surprised Hamilton in 2016. Clearly this is juicier because it’s Verstappen, in a rival team that currently has the upper hand. Fantastic – bring it on. But through circumstance and combined error of judgement a line was crossed at Silverstone, and one of them ended up in hospital. Nothing can ever be the same after that – but it’s imperative the team management, on both sides of the divide, now consider carefully how they speak to their drivers and also to the wider world. This is a fantastic rivalry, delicately poised. For the sake of great sport and the wellbeing of both men, let’s hope it doesn’t spiral in the wrong direction.