The battle lines have well and truly been drawn as the duel between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen for the Formula One Drivers’ Championship intensified at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix last weekend.
Verstappen’s dominant victory proved that Red Bull could compete for the title against Mercedes for the first time since the hybrid power era began in 2014.
Both drivers said they relished the opportunity to battle one another, in what could be a career-defining season.
Seven-time world champion Hamilton is hunting down a record-breaking eighth title, whilst the 23-year-old Verstappen has been touted as a future champion since his debut in 2015.
Bahrain saw Hamilton lay down the benchmark for his rival, managing to hold the Dutch driver at bay and take home the victory in a tense final few laps.
Yet Imola showed that Verstappen was prepared to risk it all. The 11-time race winner put in a daring move on Hamilton on the opening lap, as he looked to make up for his disappointing P3 start.
They ran side-by-side into turn two, with the Red Bull refusing to give up the racing line and forcing the 36-year-old Mercedes driver over the kerbs.
The incident was not investigated by the race stewards. However, both drivers disagreed on what happened.
“I don’t think we touched,” Verstappen said, before Hamilton quietly remarked that they did.
The Red Bull driver then added that he would need to see the footage, as second-placed Hamilton said that he believed his end-plate got damaged.
This was later confirmed by Mercedes Trackside Engineering Director Andrew Shovlin, who stated that Hamilton lost up to six-tenths of a second per lap from the damage to his car’s front wing.
Although this disagreement seems relatively minor, it begins to set a tense atmosphere around the two drivers, neither of whom will want to yield to the other.
These thoughts are echoed by Damon Hill, the 1996 world champion, who spoke on the F1 Nation podcast about the rivalry.
He said: “What we’re seeing now is just the little opening, little testy moments that are going to build over the season.
“They’re scoring points, little points off each other. Max won that one, not only won the race but he won the first corner, and the start.”
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Formula One is no stranger to dramatic rivalries, with the Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna’s battle with France’s Alain Prost perhaps the most notable and indisputably the stuff of legend.
Hamilton himself is familiar with how volatile they can be, as his friendship with former team-mate Nico Rosberg turned sour as they duelled for the title in 2016.
Two races in and Hamilton sits at the top of the Drivers’ Championship on 44 points, with only one point separating him and Verstappen.
Considering that both drivers’ team-mates, Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas and Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, have had a less than ideal start to the season, it looks set to be a two-driver shootout for the title.
It’s too early to predict who will come out on top, but they’ll need to balance the risk-versus-reward if they want to be victorious.
Consistency will be key, as either one of them can afford to lose points to the other.
With the possibility of Hamilton retiring at the end of the 2021, after only signing a one-year deal with his German team. This looks set to be a once in a generation battle between two of Formula One’s greatest talents.
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