Max Verstappen giving Lewis Hamilton what he craves in Formula One - a true contest

Dutch driver is pushing seven-time world champion to the limit, with more to come in Spain

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LEWIS HAMILTON has cruised to one championship after another saying he would love to have stronger competition.

And I have always believed, being the racer he is, the words come from the heart.

Well, what is it they say about being careful what you wish for? Now he has got it.

This year Max Verstappen has lived up to the hype and proving he is unwilling to wait for the 36-year-old Brit to hang up his boots before he takes over at the top of the sport.

Just 23 years old, he has won one Grand Prix in 2021 and finished second in the other two.

He is in the form of his life and at the wheel of the best car he has ever had - arguably the best in F1 - as the drivers prepare for the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona this weekend.

Hamilton, similarly, at 36 may have seven world championships to his name but he is rising to the challenge for the chance of number eight.

But he is having to dig deep into his well of raw natural speed as well as draw on the one significant advantage he has over the Dutchman – experience.

There is something almost mystical about the way he can coax the best out of his tortured tyres.

But they key to glory is winning the war, not just the odd battle.

Portugal last Sunday was more proof, if it were needed, Hamilton is one of the greats – winning again when the odds where against him.

In a championship where fractions will decide everything Verstappen’s chances were quite literally blown off course in freak circumstances.

The Dutchman had the speed for pole by at least a third of a second, maybe even more.

But F1 cars are sensationally fluid beasts. I’ve been driven around Abu Dhabi by Bruno Senna (Ayrton’s nephew) and Donington by Mark Webber in F1 two-seaters and driven one myself.

How to describe a feeling that is like nothing on earth? Taking a charging racer to the very limit of its capability, balanced just fractions from disaster, front and back continually pivoting around its centre of gravity as the driver probes the limits.

Verstappen’s best run was wrecked by a gust of wind as he crested a rise. Blown fractionally off course at 160mph he corrected instantly but was taken only a matter of a couple of feet outside track limits and his best lap was wiped.

Hamilton was outdone as Valtteri Bottas grabbed pole by 0.007s. The blink of an eye takes longer, 0.013. A gear change far more.

And the race itself was decided by more mistakes: Hamilton was caught looking in his mirrors when Bottas bolted at the restart, Verstappen later fumbled the final bend decisively and then overran his flying lap. Bottas was rarely in it.

PORTIMAO, PORTUGAL - MAY 02: Second placed Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing talks during a Press Conference after the F1 Grand Prix of Portugal at Autodromo Internacional Do Algarve on May 02, 2021 in Portimao, Portugal. (Photo by Al Staley - Pool/Getty Images)
Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing reflectes on his second place in the Grand Prix of Portugal. Getty

It was clear in Portugal that, given the chance, Hamilton could easily use the ‘tow’ and DRS to pass Verstappen but the reverse was not true.

Is that a because of clever design and set-up or a fortunate by-product of sticking with the low rake concept? It’s difficult to believe that the seven-times champions have lucked-into that kind of decisive advantage. Another key battleground won by Mercedes or an irrelevant anomaly?

But a wider theme is rushing to a head in the summer. Bottas has already blown his last chance at Mercedes, who must be admired for their loyalty to the friendly Finn over five mediocre years.

Hamilton’s win ratio says it all. Five times more than Bottas in the same car. With the increasing competitiveness of their rivals, Mercedes cannot afford to wait to wait until the end of the year, as they did last year, for the world champion to make a decision on 2022 which will be raced under radically changed rules.

It would only make sense to keep Bottas if Hamilton leaves and last week the champion went on record saying he will not retire.

And Red Bull have upped the ante by nicking Ben Hodgkinson, one of Mercedes’ key engine boffins with a head full of their deepest secrets, to run their new powertrain division as Honda depart.

Hamilton will be hard to beat in the drivers championship, of course, but Mercedes are more interested in the constructors series and a top class No 2  is even more crucial there, especially as their rivals appeared to have finally found a competitive No 2  in Sergio Perez.

Red Bull’s £300m commitment to an on-site engine programme (the only one outside Ferrari) is a clear indicator they are determined not just to win a world championship but steal a march on Mercedes as F1 kingpins. Permanently.