Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen‘s on-track rivalry just took a new direction post their coming together at the British Grand Prix last weekend. Red Bull’s Verstappen, who is the current championship leader, suffered a DNF which resulted in his championship rival and seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton making up significant ground in the championship battle, after it had seemed like Red Bull were running away with the show.
The 2021 championship fight with Hamilton is Verstappen’s first proper championship challenge, although he has had his moments over the years. Verstappen, who is in his seventh Formula One season, is still only 23 years old and is one of the brightest prospects of the sport for the future. Hamilton, on the other hand, in his fifteenth season, is one of the greats of the sport, having faced many challenges over the years which he has overcome, at times with relative ease.
But the fight with Verstappen in a new one for the seven-time champion as well; in almost all of Hamilton’s championship winning seasons he has always been comfortably ahead of his rivals and even if he would fall back, he would make sure to not let the deficit get too big. The 2021 challenge, though, has been a different one. Ever since winter testing, Red Bull have had the dominant car and after the opening ten rounds have taken six victories with Verstappen having five of those attributed to his name. Mercedes and Hamilton have simply been outpaced in the majority of the races and that has made the championship battle livelier this year.
Although the two haven’t really fought it out for a championship previously, they have had their fair share of on-track battles. Let us look at some of Hamilton and Verstappen’s fiercest on-track moments.
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It was Verstappen’s second season at Red Bull and first full season after having been put in the seat midway through the previous season.
Heading into Round 15, Verstappen was plagued by technical issues that had seen him retire seven times coming into Malaysia. Although the season was dominated by the Mercedes and Ferrari of Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, respectively, Daniel Ricciardo, Verstappen’s senior teammate at Red Bull, had picked up a win at Azerbaijan. Verstappen has always been an aggressive driver, who races to win and nothing else, and he was itching to get a win in 2017 after having been let down by the car multiple times. Hamilton, on the other hand, entered the race on the back of three consecutive wins at Spa, Monza and Singapore and was a favourite to win coming into Malaysia.
Lewis went about the task right from the get-go, taking pole from Kimi Räikkönen and Max Verstappen, with Vettel failing to set a time due to an engine issue. With Räikkönen pulling off the grid at the start of the race due to a technical issue Hamilton had his work made simpler, with neither Ferrari in the picture to pressure him. He started well and headed off with Verstappen, Valtteri Bottas and Ricciardo following suit. Verstappen, though, wasn’t hanging around and made sure he stayed within DRS range of Hamilton in the opening laps. On Lap 4, the Dutchman who was hunting down Hamilton, used DRS to dive down the inside of the Mercedes going into Turn 1 and take the lead of the race. He then slowly began to clear out Hamilton from his DRS range and by the 10th lap was a good two-and-a-half seconds ahead of the Mercedes. He was helped by the fact that Hamilton was told to look after his tyres as they were overheating and also that the Brit was suffering from a battery de-rate issue which held him back.
With Hamilton taking a conservative approach, Verstappen put his foot down, and by the halfway mark had built a gap of more than five seconds over Hamilton. Verstappen put in a dominating performance, holding off the defending world champion behind him comfortably, and taking his second career win just a day after his 20th birthday.
Verstappen’s win in Malaysia announced the young Dutchman as a serious force to be reckoned with. He was not afraid to punch above his weight and take down whoever was standing toe-to-toe with him. Fearless, bold and dominant, Verstappen made sure the world took notice.
Following his triumph as Sepang, Verstappen entered the Japanese Grand Prix filled with confidence. Red Bull were off the pace right from the start, though, with Verstappen qualifying fourth, over a second slower than Hamilton on pole.
But Verstappen was not going to sit back, and put in a bold move on his teammate at the opening corner at Suzuka to take third place. Although he wasn’t done yet, and with Vettel having technical issues, Verstappen sent another one on the opening lap to take second place from the four-time world champion. With his championship rival out of the race and seemingly also out of the championship run, Hamilton would have thought his race would be easy, but Verstappen had him looking in his mirrors throughout the races, keeping close to the Mercedes driver.
Hamilton seemed to have just enough pace to hold off the charging Dutchman, but a late Virtual Safety Car (VSC) bunched up the field again, giving Verstappen the advantage for he had held back to conserve his tyres to mount a late surge. Heading into the final few laps after the VSC restart, Verstappen gave everything and was within two-hundredths of Hamilton, but the seven-time world champion held on to the win with Verstappen following just a little over a second behind.
Even though Hamilton took the win, he was made to work hard for it by this 20-year-old who was beginning to push the Brit right to the limit.
After picking up damage in Q1, Verstappen failed to put in a time for Q2 that left him starting P15. Hamilton didn’t fare too well either by his own standards, starting a lowly fourth behind teammate Bottas.
A terrible start from the Brit along with Verstappen’s first lap charge saw the Dutchman just behind Hamilton in P11 on the first lap. Verstappen wanted to make the most of Hamilton’s misfortunes and went down the inside of his Mercedes into Turn 1, and with Fernando Alonso on his right, Max fought wheel to wheel with Hamilton and barged his way through that sandwich, albeit at the expense of picking up a right-rear puncture after contact with Hamilton’s front wing.
Verstappen had to pit for a fresh pair of tyres and his race didn’t get any better as he had to retire on Lap 15 due to a transmission issue. Even though the young Dutch driver didn’t finish the race, he had made his point clear – whether you were a seven-time world champion or a one-time race winner, Max Verstappen would fight you on track, where you would be just another driver and another car in the way of Verstappen and his victory. He was not going to surrender to anyone.
Hamilton started from pole at the Principality, at the track where it is notoriously difficult to overtake. With Verstappen in third, Hamilton had the comfort of his teammate holding off the Red Bull driver in the initial stages to build a lead.
Hamilton had a comfortable and clean start to race and held onto his lead. His teammate, though, had it a bit tougher, as Verstappen almost dived on the inside of Bottas heading into the first corner, but the Finn somehow managed to hold on. As the cars came in for the first set of pit stops on Lap 12, Bottas, Vettel and Verstappen headed into the pits together and the Red Bull crew released Max unsafely onto the path of Bottas, who had to take evasive action to avoid contact and Max was handed a five-second penalty. Bottas, at the time, had to concede which promoted Verstappen into the second place.
Up ahead, Hamilton, who had had a relatively comfortable lead, began to struggle when his medium set of tyres began to wear out, which gave Max the opportunity to catch Hamilton, and for most part of the remaining laps he was right up on the rear of Hamilton, with the latter putting in a master class in defending to hold off the former with a worn out set of tyres. Lap after lap, Verstappen seemed to get agonisingly close to the Brit, but Hamilton kept on putting his car just at the right places to hold off Verstappen, who got his best chance to take the win on Lap 76 when he almost went past Hamilton at Turn 10, but Hamilton cut the chicane and managed to hold on to the lead, with Verstappen finishing just sixth-tenths behind, although his five-second penalty relegated the Dutchman to fifth place.
Max might have left Monaco P5, but he was turning the pressure on Hamilton, and the world champion knew that there was a new threat on its way.
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The Hungaroring for majority of the turbo hybrid era has been a happy hunting ground for Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton, with the Brit taking six victories heading into the 2019 race. But Verstappen had different plans that year and after putting in a smashing banker lap in Q3 became the first Dutch Formula One driver on pole, with Hamilton starting P3.
Verstappen was under pressure right off the line, with both of the Mercedes cars attacking into Turn 1, but a lock up by Bottas forced Hamilton wide and gave Max a chance to pull away. Bottas locked up once again at Turn 2 and Lewis went on the outside of the Finn to take second spot heading into Turn 3. Although Hamilton tried to attack, Verstappen managed to keep the Brit out of DRS range.
On Lap 25, it was Red Bull who got Verstappen to pit first, with the strategy being clear after he was fitted on with the hards: it was going to be a one-stopper for the Austrian team. Seven laps later, race leader Hamilton came in for what looked like his only pit stop as he also put the hard compound tyres on. A relatively slow pit stop of 4 seconds meant Hamilton rejoined the track in second place, five seconds adrift of the leader but more importantly, on a set of fresher tyres, ready to catch the race leader. Within a lap, Hamilton already began to show his pace on the newer tyres as he cut down that five-second gap to just over three seconds. Hamilton almost took the lead of the race on Lap 39, but the Brit ran wide into Turn 4 and lost a few tenths that gave Verstappen the chance to push on.
Verstappen managed to hold onto the lead and on Lap 49 in a surprising turn of events as Mercedes called in Hamilton for a second pit stop. With Hamilton having built a 39-second gap to Charles Leclerc in third place, the plan was simple – use the final 20 laps to throw everything at Verstappen, who would be on worn out tyres. Along with the gap to third place, another factor that played right into Mercedes’ hands was that the second Red Bull of Pierre Gasly was down in sixth place, almost a minute and six seconds behind Hamilton. The Silver Arrows’ pit crew put on the medium tyres on Hamilton’s W10 to set him loose to chase Verstappen. Mercedes’ call to pit Hamilton had caught out Red Bull and they decided not to bring in Max for a second pit stop fearing Hamilton would beat them on the undercut. With 14 laps remaining, Hamilton was still 15 seconds behind and going hard every lap in an effort to cut down the gap. Verstappen, who was on much older tyres, was holding onto the lead, wishing the chequered flag to come as soon as possible. On Lap 63, Hamilton had brought down the gap to a mere six seconds, and Verstappen was clear on the radio to his team when he stated his tyres were dead. It now wasn’t about how long Verstappen could hold off Hamilton but how fast Hamilton could catch up to Verstappen. On Lap 67, Hamilton was just a few tenths behind Verstappen heading into the main straight, and with DRS, Hamilton swooped past the Red Bull, taking the lead going into Turn 1.
Hamilton’s victory not only gave him a comfortable lead in the championship standings but also stated that the veteran still had it in him to charge back through and make it count when it mattered.
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Unlike their previous battles, the 2021 fight already gave Max the advantage as Red Bull’s seemed to be the car to beat in the season. But Hamilton put in a stunning Q3 lap to take not only the pole from Verstappen but also his 100th pole position in Formula One.
However, it was the Red Bull driver that got the better start on Sunday as Verstappen had his elbows out right from the start, going on the inside of Hamilton into Turn 1 to take the lead of the race. The retirement of AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda brought out the safety, diminishing Verstappen’s lead. As the safety car came in on Lap 11, Verstappen backed up the pack just enough to sprint away once again in a bid to build a healthy lead. It was Verstappen who came into the pits first on Lap 25, handing Hamilton the lead of the race. A slow pit stop from the crew saw Verstappen join the track in third place, almost nine seconds behind Hamilton. Three laps later, Hamilton came in for his own pit stop, and a swift stop from the Mercedes crew brought him on the track just behind Verstappen in second place.
Verstappen held on to the lead, but once again Mercedes managed to catch him off guard with their strategy as they called in Hamilton for his second pit stop on Lap 43. He rejoined 22 seconds behind Verstappen in third place. By Lap 50, Hamilton was once again reeling in Verstappen, lap after lap, bringing the lead down to 12 seconds with 16 laps to go. Within 9 laps, after being let through by his teammate, Hamilton was within DRS range of Verstappen and on much fresher tyres than his opponent. Hamilton passed Verstappen quite easily on the outside of Turn 1.
Once again, Mercedes and Hamilton had caught out Red Bull and Verstappen with superior strategy, but the fact that Verstappen was constantly making Hamilton and his team think out of the box to win showed the development of Verstappen from a hot-headed arrogant driver to a mature and aggressive one.
In a season where Red Bull seemed to have the superior power unit and slowly began to run away with the titles, came Hamilton and Verstappen’s greatest on-track battle till date.
At his home Grand Prix, Hamilton qualified on pole, but Formula One’s new format of Sprint Qualifying meant that he would have to take the Sprint race win to start at the top of the grid on Sunday. Verstappen, who qualified P2, attacked the Brit right off the line, taking the lead and holding onto that lead for 17 laps to start P1 for Sunday’s feature race.
With Verstappen on P1 and Hamilton beside him on the front row, it was going to be an exciting race. Hamilton got the better start and was running beside the Red Bull for the first few corners, but a better exit out of Turn 4 allowed Hamilton to momentarily get ahead of Verstappen, although the Red Bull driver managed to regain the lead going on the inside. Coming out of Turn 7 Hamilton had the inside line, and with him accelerating faster that Verstappen, both drivers touched, with Hamilton’s left front making contact with Verstappen’s right rear. Such was the speed of the cars coming out of Copse, that Verstappen had a heavy impact into the barriers at 290 km/h. Verstappen had an immediate DNF with the session being red flagged. Hamilton was penalised with a ten-second penalty and re-joined at fourth once racing resumed. Although there was no Verstappen to stop him, the Brit put in yet another master class by coming back once again with a masterful drive to take his eight British Grand Prix victory.
Although it was a short tussle between the two, the fact that Verstappen has been regularly fighting Hamilton for the win throughout the season and that the Dutchman has been able to pressure the seven-time world champion into making a mistake shows that the two now have a proper title fight underway.
Hamilton knows all about being under pressure during a title fight, having been beaten by teammate Nico Rosberg in 2016 and having faced strong challenges from Sebastian Vettel in 2017 and 2018, while also overcoming a substantial deficit in 2017 to win the championship. Verstappen, on the other hand, for the first time in his career, has a car that is worthy of a title fight. He would be careful not to crack under the pressure. After all, he is not just up against any another other driver for the title, he is fighting arguably the greatest driver in the history of the sport, and therefore, has his work cut out for him.