Why Hamilton vs Verstappen could surpass Senna vs Prost


When it comes to great championship battles, those between McLaren team-mates Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost take some beating. But could the modern-day showdown between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen be even more explosive?

start of the race, depart, 33 VERSTAPPEN Max (nld), Red Bull Racing Honda RB16B, 44 HAMILTON Lewis (gbr), Mercedes AMG F1 GP W12 E Performance, action during the Formula 1 Pirelli Gran Premio Del Made In Italy E Dell emilia Romagna 2021 from April 16 to 18, 2021 on the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari, in Imola, Italy - Photo Antonin Vincent / DPPI

Hamilton vs Verstappen – as intense as Senna / Prost, or even more so?

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

Suddenly it feels like we’ve been here before. When Lewis Hamilton crossed the line to take victory in the Spanish Grand Prix – the 98th of his career – it marked his third win from four so far this year, but it also had a second echo of history about it.

Hamilton has resoundingly bounced back from being trounced by Verstappen in Imola, taking his own turn to dominate in Portugal before winning out in a tactical battle in Barcelona. With Bottas still playing catch-up to his all-conquering Mercedes team-mate, this campaign is fast becoming the Hamilton and Verstappen show.

But there’s something familiar about the way this season is going. It’s that pattern; Hamilton, Verstappen, Hamilton, Hamilton… and two cars off in front of the rest.

That’s because we have seen it before, 33 years ago.

Back in 1988 Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost were only just embarking on what would become one of the most venomous of sibling rivalries with McLaren, as the wonderful Honda-powered MP4/4 began to soundly convince the world that it was simply in a different league to its rivals. That year, nothing could touch the McLaren-Hondas. They shared all but one pole position and all but one race win between them – count 15 from 16 for both.

Prost won in Brazil, before Senna struck back in San Marino. Then Prost took advantage of one of Senna’s most famous mistakes to triumph in Monaco, and then doubled up by beating his rival in Mexico.

Senna Prost 88 talking

Things were rarely cordial between Senna and Prost during their most intense of rivalries

Gilles Levent / DPPI

Prost, Senna, Prost, Prost… two cars way out front, nobody else looking like a safe bet for a win… starting to sound familiar?

But it can’t be just that simple, and it’s not. Because, as brightly as Senna v Prost in ’88 may live in the memory, it’s arguably nowhere near as spicy as this year’s championship has the potential to become.

To elaborate, let’s look at the stats.

“The truth is what we have now, especially this season, is a whole lot closer”

Taking the first four grands prix of the season from 1988, and juxtaposing them against what we’ve seen from 2021 so far gives a clearer picture of the potential this current campaign has.

As much as we love to remember Formula 1 ‘in the good old days’, the truth is what we have now, especially this season, is a whole lot closer when the cars are allowed to run at their maximum performance, without the concerns of fuel or tyre saving, i.e. in qualifying trim.

In 1988, Senna was the master of a single lap, and started each of the first six races from pole, but for this comparison, we’ll focus on those first four. His largest margin over Prost in one of those early-season sessions was his magical, almost otherworldly lap in Monaco which put him 1.427sec clear of the Frenchman in second. The closest of those four came in Mexico, where Senna still held a cushion of 0.629sec over Prost on raw, unbridled pace.

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Combining the four qualifying results from 1988 gives us an average margin of 0.878sec in Senna’s favour. Pretty close then. Except it’s nothing compared to this season.

In Spain, Hamilton nicked top spot from Verstappen by just 0.036sec. And the biggest gap between the two so far came in Portugal, when Lewis enjoyed a comparatively colossal 0.391sec over the Dutchman. Average out the four results so far, and the margin between the two sits at just 0.225sec. Over half-a-second closer than Senna and Prost were at this point three decades ago, and let’s not forget we’re talking about two different cars in 2021, not team-mates in identical kit.

The statistic for the races is skewed slightly by Senna’s disqualification from Brazil (for switching to the spare car after the gearbox of his original jammed on the formation lap) and his crash at Portier that cost him so dearly in Monaco, but we can still use some data for comparison, even if it does take a few liberties.

Suppose that Senna had throttled back and maintained that 55sec advantage he held over Prost before his Monaco spill, then we have three results to work with. The tightest margin being Senna’s 2.334sec cushion at San Marino. Average it out, and we get a rough winning margin of 16.1sec in either direction.

Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton (R) shakes hands with Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen after the qualifying session at the Circuit de Catalunya on May 8, 2021 in Montmelo on the outskirts of Barcelona ahead of the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix. (Photo by Emilio Morenatti / POOL / AFP) (Photo by EMILIO MORENATTI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

There’s a clear respect between Verstappen and Hamilton, with little appetite for mind games

Emilio Morenatti / POOL / AFP) (Photo by EMILIO MORENATTI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Look at this year and Hamilton’s Portuguese performance stands as the most dominant of the campaign so far, with the Briton 29.148sec clear at the flag. The tightest? That stunning Bahrain opener when Hamilton somehow held off the fresher-tyred Verstappen to win by just 0.745sec. The result – an average winning margin of 16.9sec – across four races rather than three. Strikingly similar.

Work it out race-by-race, and 1988’s average has each grand prix decided by 4.719sec (using San Marino and Mexico, as the only races so far both Senna and Prost finished), and 2021’s by 4.232sec across the four races thus far. Only half-a-second or so in it, but at this point every decimal counts.

The modern-day rules surrounding fastest race laps skew the figures far too much to make any comparison worthwhile – in Spain alone Verstappen’s fastest race lap was 2.5sec quicker than Hamilton’s, due to his move onto fresh tyres a lap from the finish when on the lowest fuel possible.

But, as many say, you can make stats prove whatever you want them to. So, let’s look at something else, such as the outside influences that could make all the difference.

During 1988, Senna and Prost only had a single interloper, Gerhard Berger, who grabbed a pole at Silverstone and that one race win on Ferrari’s home turf at Monza. Aside from that it was very much a cakewalk for the two McLaren drivers, who largely only had to worry what each other was doing. They lapped the entire field in San Marino and after that it took until Silverstone (round eight) for anybody beyond the top 4 to stay on the same lap as the leading McLaren.

The same just won’t happen this season. The field is simply now too tight, plus the battle this season is arguably all the more rich due to the protagonists being in different teams, rather than acting as team-mates. There’s just something more satisfying about seeing the blue car battling with the silver one. It gives less of a feeling of one-sidedness, less about a single faction dominating, and essentially removes the argument over any potential team orders. In fact, team orders becomes an added element into the mixture.

Both Hamilton and Verstappen clearly enjoy number one status in their respective teams, meaning each can enjoy or employ a wingman should push come to shove later in the season. But those other two cars could also themselves creep into this fight. Bottas may be in the shade at the moment, but he’s still up there in the second Mercedes (he has been a race winner in all of his seasons with Mercedes, bar one) and Sergio Perez is finding his feet as Verstappen’s team-mate in a clearly very well sorted high-rake Red Bull, plus the McLarens and Ferraris are still in the wings, albeit not quite there on pace with the top two.

The days of Hamilton and Mercedes having such a pace advantage over the rest of the field are gone, and Mercedes is unlikely to unlock much more performance from its W12 with the wholesale changes of the next-generation cars on the horizon for next year.

That means there are a heap of scenarios where Hamilton or Verstappen could hit trouble and be punished heavily. That sort of jeopardy only adds to the drama.

Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, McLaren-Honda MP4/4, Grand Prix of Portugal, Estoril, 25 September 1988. (Photo by Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images)

Prost and Senna hardly giving each other an inch at Estoril ’88

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

And what if the top two are able to make a break from the rest. What’s the potential for things to get ugly? Well, probably quite high.

In terms characters and driving styles, there are also some distinct familiarities with 1988. Once again we have the boy wonder against the proven old stager, head-to-head for the title. Verstappen actually fits the role of Senna rather well – passionate, fiery and known for his razor’s edge performances. Whereas Hamilton could easily fill the Prost mould, winning races through crushing consistency and superior tactics.

Max takes no prisoners on track. If there’s a gap, he’ll happily chuck a Red Bull into it – as evidenced already this season at turns one in both Imola and Spain where Verstappen happily went wheel-to-wheel with Hamilton, forcing the world champion to cede top spot. Jousting like that in cars that are just fractions of a second apart creates plenty of opportunity for things to get spicy.

Hamilton hasn’t traditionally been one to resort to dirty tactics or mind games, and it’s unlikely that Verstappen will start launching psychological bombs Hamilton’s way either. Both prefer to do their talking on the track, but when push comes to shove neither will want to give an inch when there’s a title on the line.

Who really knows where the next 19 races will take us this year, but it’s clear that the potential is there for the 2021 world championship to go down in memory for all the right reasons.