Rivalry between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen takes a dangerous turn

Mercedes star's refusal to budge in the face of Red Bull driver's challenge and the lenient punishment given to Briton will fuel their war further

On Sunday Lewis Hamilton’s rivalry with Max Verstappen took a dangerous step in a direction that could cost one of them their lives.

Let’s not sugar coat it. This is not a football final where the worst that can happen is a nation’s broken heart. This is motor racing. People die.

That may sound dramatic but is there another way to look at it after that catastrophic 180 mph accident at Copse during the British Grand Prix on Sunday? In an instant a thrilling battle between the sport’s two leading protagonists went from a kind of competitive 'bromance' to something different altogether.

And what has surely stoked the flames is the young Dutchman having to watch from his hospital bed, hurting from a 51G impact, as his rival bounced up and down with utter joy, waving the victory flag.

And then hear Hamilton asked if the fact that Verstappen was in hospital took the shine off his victory? “Honestly, no it doesn’t. This is racing. I would love to be able to race and to leave space, and there is plenty of space, but when someone is too aggressive these things are bound to happen.”

“There is not a single person here who does not know how aggressive a driver can be.”

And by “a driver” he meant Verstappen.

Just to refresh your memory of what’s at stake in the battle between the pair: quite simply – everything.

Hamilton will achieve immortality by becoming the first driver in history to win eight F1 titles if he succeeds while the Red Bull ace would be collaring his first and taking the Briton’s place on the F1 throne.

Was any of that going through their heads at Copse, Verstappen leading and Hamilton looking to overtake ? Of course not. They were just two alpha fighters doing what comes naturally.

There is layer upon layer to their rivalry going back to previous duels, previous races, even previous bends just seconds before and perhaps even Bernie Ecclestone saying Hamilton was past his best.

It’s also worth considering that taking on Hamilton in front of 100,000 adoring fans is akin, for you and I, to picking an argument with a guy in his own living room, in front of his assembled family and his new girlfriend.

Verstappen, for his part, has a history of aggressive, do or die, moves - two already this season on Hamilton at Imola and, brilliantly, at Barcelona.

Both times it was only the champion’s willingness to give ground that avoided a costly impact. But their cold war could only last so long.

The only real surprise is that the inevitable collision came at Copse, a deadly, flat out, eighth gear, 180mph right-hander. You’d think both had more brains than to risk it there.

I have been taken around it by Hamilton in an AMG GT R Mercedes monster and I can tell you it is breath-taking, even at more modest speeds. Hamilton knew he probably had one lap to strike for the lead and after that the Red Bull would be gone. Game over.

So he threw his car down the inside. Did he know there was going to be an accident? No, of course not. But he had a good idea. You don’t gamble around Copse without the knowledge the slightest touch could be utterly catastrophic.

Then again Verstappen’s strategy of driving as if Hamilton didn’t exist, and turning in so sharply, wasn’t likely to end well for the car on the outside – i.e. him.

In my opinion Hamilton had unquestionably decided long before that he would not pull out of Verstappen’s next bit of ‘rough’ racing. Later he called it “bullying”.

It’s an unpleasant fact of motor racing life that you sometimes have to risk an accident to wake your rival up. Well, I think Verstappen is awake now.

And one of the stupidest things I’ve heard in a long while is that ‘clear the air’ talks between the pair will do anything other than antagonise the situation.

What I find incomprehensible, though, is the steward’s decision. Hamilton was considered responsible but not punished to any real effect whatsoever.

So the 23-year-old Verstappen’s anger is further fuelled by indignation and a feeling of injustice. A heady cocktail to take into the cockpit.

As things stand Verstappen is bubbling with bile, hoping if he does the same to Hamilton there is every chance he could get away with it.

If he has any sense, though, he will appreciate he could have acted differently at Copse and be more circumspect in future.

Not because he is now afraid or has any more respect for Hamilton but because, more than anything else, it was a situation he really didn’t need to risk.

He was in the best car, leading race and championship. Regardless of the rights and wrongs, one crash later a hard-earned 33-point lead is back down to just eight.

That’s what will hurt the most.

Updated: July 21st 2021, 2:53 AM