Head-to-head battles in any sport have a unique intensity that lays bare the strengths and weaknesses of the protagonists. Motorsport is unusual in that these epic fights don’t happen every year, but when they do, they are stretched over many months in pursuit of the ultimate prize — in Formula 1, the world championship — and you can never be sure exactly how those involved will respond in this pressure-cooker environment.
With every race that passes, the stakes increase if neither driver can permanently seize the initiative. This is exactly what Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen have gone through during the 2021 season.
Hamilton holds an eight-point lead at the August break, which is a difference of less than one point per race on average. With as many as 13 races and a potential 338 points remaining, that’s effectively nothing. But both drivers have been tested to their limits over those first 11 races, so what have we learned about them?
For Hamilton, this is far from his first rodeo, as he’s been fighting for F1 titles since his first season in 2007. Over the years he’s fought for championships with the best the 21st century has to offer — Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Nico Rosberg, Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber, Felipe Massa — but he’s never faced an opponent quite like Verstappen before. The jury is still out on how well he has dealt with the young usurper in what is a classic generational battle that looks set to go the distance.
Hamilton has landed some blows, and taken some — as has Verstappen — so far this season, although you can make a case that his peaks have been slightly higher. But Verstappen has shown himself to be absolutely capable of taking on Hamilton, and has arguably been marginally the stronger all-round performer. While he is currently behind, he has unquestionably been the less fortunate of the pair, losing certain victory in Baku to a tire failure, crashing heavily at Silverstone after contact with Hamilton and having to drive sensationally to salvage a minor points finish in Hungary after Valtteri Bottas booted Lando Norris’s McLaren into him. He can be forgiven for feeling hard done by to be behind at this stage.
But it’s unlikely to faze Verstappen. He may, astonishingly, still only be a 23-year-old, but those who still regard him as a hot-headed youth haven’t been playing close attention. That he should have a hefty points lead at this point, but doesn’t, will only serve to motivate him, and there’s been no evidence of him being overly-aggressive or losing his head. His dogged drive in a Red Bull missing much of its right-side bargeboard to salvage a point or two at the Hungaroring is proof of that. No wonder Red Bull chief technical officer Adrian Newey, who has worked with more than his fair share of world champions, has talked up Verstappen’s determination.
“He has the same steely grit as any world champion, the stuff they need to dig in and keep going in the face of adversity,” said Newey. “He can put the past behind him and look forward to the next race. His driving ability is obviously superb, and he’s matured into a great racer. He’s really not made any mistakes this year. The races where he hasn’t scored heavily – Baku, Silverstone and Hungary — have been no fault of his, but he’s kept his head and bounced back from all of those.
“I don’t think the pressure of the situation will affect him. He’s very easy to chat to and has a wide range of interests, which I think is very important for an F1 driver. If your only interest is F1, that can almost make it too important when the pressure comes on. Max has a very good balance in that respect.”
Newey would, of course, always talk up “his” driver, but what he says matches what we’ve seen from Verstappen so far this year. He’s proved that he’s learned from the experiences of the past, particular the run of blunders in the first half of 2018 that led to a fundamental change in his approach — albeit one he denied making at the time.
Neither Verstappen nor Hamilton have been faultless this year, but intense competition is the enemy of perfection, and in such a close battle even small errors that might have gone largely unnoticed in more straightforward seasons can have a big impact. While Hamilton has made a couple of bigger errors, it’s still too close to call between the two.
But delving into the details of the season is revealing, as every race weekend tells us a little more about how Hamilton and Verstappen respond under the pressure of the battle. The obvious flashpoints have been the five races where they have directly crossed swords on track. The first blow was landed by Hamilton with an against-the run-of-play victory in Bahrain. There, Mercedes had the slower car but seized the initiative with an aggressive undercut, then relied on Hamilton’s defensive brilliance to hold off the charging Verstappen.