Hamilton and Verstappen go to Abu Dhabi after respectful rivalry turns into bitter battle

F1 world title fight to be settled at Yas Marina Circuit on Sunday

And so to Abu Dhabi and the finale of an extraordinary rivalry. The irresistible force meets the immoveable rock. Max Verstappen against Lewis Hamilton. The heir apparent versus the king. You can cut it a thousand ways.

Nine months after it all began, just an hour's flight from here, the duo arrive on Yas Island, the extraordinary jewel of the Middle Eastern motor sporting world, with honours even.

In between there have been 21 Grands Prix across four continents. Fortunes have waxed and waned.

In May, Hamilton led by 14 points. Five races later, Verstappen was up 32 as Hamilton suffered the biggest slump of his career.

The man who was used to winning as he pleased couldn’t buy one. Crashing Verstappen out of the lead at Silverstone was the only way to hit the front.

I have no doubt Hamilton knew what he was doing that day every bit as much as the young Dutchman has been kicking himself ever since for allowing it to happen.

But Verstappen was doing what champions do. What we’ve seen Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher do. We've seen Hamilton himself do it.

That wasn’t where this season started spinning out of control. It happened when Hamilton leapt up and down with joy on the podium as his rival watched from his hospital bed after a 52G impact he was lucky to survive.

It happened when Hamilton was asked about his rival’s ruthless racing tactics and his reply was pretty much along the lines of ‘if you play with fire you are going to get burnt’.

Well, that cut both ways. Four races later, Hamilton was trapped in his cockpit, Verstappen’s Red Bull resting just above his helmet.

Respectful rivalry turned into a bitter battle with no quarter given.

Mercedes are plugging a narrative Hamilton is the deserving champion, who deals in the finer aspects of fair racing and Verstappen the bludgeoning, brutal, primeval wannabe braking all the rules.

Abu Dhabi Grand Prix - past winners

Jacques Villeneuve, who became champion in 1997 when Schumacher was kicked out of the championship for just such antics, has an interesting take on it all.

“They all play these little tricks,” he said. “When Lewis does them, he does them in a way that there's always the doubt whether he did it on purpose or not. It was the same against [Nico] Rosberg. When Rosberg did it, he got caught out and it looked dirty.

“When Lewis was doing it was ‘he didn't do it on purpose, it's clean’. And he's a master of that and he's amazing at that, of course.”

Villeneuve believes Hamilton deliberately drove into the back of Verstappen in Saudi and is playing dumb. The Canadian is just one voice and it’s not as if the Dutchman is entirely innocent on that score.

That swingeing punishment for Schumacher in 1997 was a big wake up call for the entire grid but has long since been forgotten.

The sport’s rulers at the time, race director Charlie Whiting, Max Mosley, and Bernie Ecclestone, were more than happy to wave the big stick even at the biggest names if they didn’t play by their rules.

Mosley and Ecclestone are gone and Whiting sadly died on the eve of the 2019 season.

The sport’s current owners, Liberty Media, and the new sporting director, Michael Masi, have a lighter touch. They do more by negotiation and compromise but aren’t sporting rules black and white absolutes?

After an epic season and signs of radical improvements for 2022, some would argue they are slowly getting it right. But in the absence of a firm (and strict) hand on the tiller, teams and drivers have adopted a ’shoot now ask questions later’ approach to see what they can get away with.

And the drivers themselves are so confused over the rules of combat, a meeting of the entire grid with Masi in Qatar stretched on for 90 minutes. The best drivers in the world spent over an hour discussing one of the most basic aspects of the sport and two races later appear non-the-wiser.

Verstappen himself complained he was punished in Saudi for doing something that was allowed in Brazil. And why was he the only one to suffer, he asked, when Hamilton had gone off too?

Of course, the referee can never win but he needs to bring confidence and consistency if nothing else. Athletes should never be in doubt about the rules of engagement. Especially not when driving 300kph.

That said, some of the best seasons in F1 history have ended in the wall amid splintered Kevlar and carbon fibre. But it would be a crying shame if such a stellar season was decided by stewards and lawyers rather than the two racing drivers.

It’s the titanic battle that neither side deserves to lose, yet someone has to.

Updated: December 8th 2021, 5:21 AM