Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen strapped in for latest episode of a titanic battle
Reigning champion handed Dutchman brutal lesson in Bahrain and the two titans of F1 now head to Imola for the season's second grand prix
From the barren sands of Bahrain to the verdant countryside of northern Italy. Imola on Sunday will be a very different setting for round two of the titanic battle between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton.
Point and squirt outside Manama gives way to Imola’s sweeping curves, high-speed corners and difficult dances through fast chicanes.
The early races of a season are always reminiscent of a blurred camera lens slowly coming in to focus. Who is the chaser? Who the pursuer? Is the qualifying advantage borne out over a race distance? It takes three or four races for a pin sharp image to emerge.
As fans salivate over the next instalment of the battle between these two titans my mind still lingers on the deciding corner of the Bahrain Grand Prix. Turn Four.
Verstappen had a better car and was hunting Hamilton down for a win that could have signalled the start of a changing of the guard at the very top of the sport.
F1 cars arrive there in top gear, flat out and straining, at 300kph scrape off nearly 170kph in a few hundred metres before diving into a tightening right-hander.
Carrying speed on the exit at around 130kph is vital; the advantage carries you through the flicks of 5, 6, 7, and into the hard right hairpin for eight. No overtaking places there. Then the squirt to the difficult double left hander for the dash down the back of the pit straight.
In the sweeping curves that follow there is little chance to counter attack until the final duo, Turns 14 and 15. So Four is vital.
The Dutchman dived past but Hamilton hugged the inside line as the Red Bull’s momentum carried it onto outlawed territory – an area specifically banned by the stewards in an unusual mid-race dictat.
One issued after Red Bull itself complained Hamilton was over-using it.
In his enthusiasm to grasp the moment after so many years of desperately chasing Mercedes’ shadow Verstappen got it all wrong.
Had he forgotten what was ahead? That the controversial Turn Four no-man’s land lay in wait? Or was he outfoxed by a veteran rival who him edged out of bounds?
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Then a second and third mistake followed, Verstappen handed the lead back too soon, dirtied his tyres and skidded wide. That was it. Game, set and win to Hamilton.
It was brutal lesson for the 23-year-old. Rooster to feather duster in a couple of corners. Second is salt in the wounds when you have the best car.
Race director Michael Masi’s mid-race ruling on Turn Four was irritatingly reminiscent of VAR, the video refereeing nonsense that is wrecking football. What is a foul one day is not the next.
The point is, though, that Verstappen surely knew the turn was coming up and the possible consequences of his dive around the outside.
In the pressure of the moment, in his desperation, maybe he was caught out.
And there, perhaps, is the critical difference between the two rivals: experience.
Ok, Hamilton has been in F1 15 years and Verstappen just seven but it goes deeper than that.
After an extensive karting career there were just 250 days between the time Verstappen started track racing and he first drove an F1 car in Japan. January 16 to October 3 2014. In between were just 47 races.
In contrast it took Hamilton six years: 2001 to 2006. His paymasters demanding he win the series before they bankrolled his promotion. In around 2,190 days he did 109 races across three formulae. If there was a lesson to learn he learned it.
Where Verstappen rocketed through the lower formula Hamilton’s meticulous preparation meant he was the best prepared racer in F1 history. And hasn’t it showed.
Red Bull boss Christian Horner had the chance to sign a youthful Hamilton from McLaren and I can’t help but wonder that having passed up the chance that time may explain why Red Bull went all out when a little known 17-year-old Dutchman came knocking.
The judgement has been borne out and the difference between Hamilton and Verstappen in nerve, talent, determination and speed is miniscule. In experience it is cavernous.
That’s not a criticism of Verstappen it’s just empirical fact. Some lessons you can only learn by making the mistake. And at this level they can be very expensive.
No amount of team strategy or technical knowledge can help. It’s seat of the pants stuff. Like Turn Four.
So the machinery may favour Verstappen but history and experience speak for Hamilton in this deliciously balanced world title fight.
Published: April 14, 2021 08:58 AM