Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen approach the mouth-watering title showdown in Abu Dhabi in the same fashion they did in the opening race in Bahrain nearly 9 months ago: level on points. 259 days later, on Sunday, they will battle it out one final time in this enthralling 2021 season to decide the destiny of the world championship. The 22 previous instalments of Hamilton versus Verstappen have seen incredible action, drama, and not least altercation and bitterness. The most recent showing in Jeddah stretched this rivalry to the limit, and perhaps went beyond hard racing and breached sporting conduct. Where do you draw the line?
Formula 1 has changed hugely through the decades, but one constant that has stood the test of time, engineering, and regulations is controversy. From Prost and Senna to Schumacher and Villeneuve, from the 2005 US Grand Prix debacle to Crashgate, it is a factor that this sport simply cannot escape.
Right from that curtain-raiser in Bahrain… a fiery debate has polarised fans
In a season where, for the first time since 1974, the two contenders go into the final race level on points, this has been amplified. Right from that curtain-raiser in Bahrain, where Verstappen overtook Hamilton off track and was forced to hand the place back, a fiery debate has polarised fans. This reached a flashpoint at Silverstone, where the rivals dramatically collided at Copse corner that resulted in Verstappen flying into the barriers for a 51g impact, an incident for which Hamilton was adjudged to be at fault, though he still went on to win the race despite his time penalty.
The blame was reversed at Monza, where Verstappen’s unwillingness to back out (a common theme across the season) meant that the Mercedes and Red Bull became entangled and were both stranded in the gravel. The Dutchman was again under fire for sending both drivers wide at Turn 4 in Brazil, though was not penalised by the stewards.
Last week in Jeddah the epic rivalry ignited once more with a spate of incidents that typified their struggle for the title
Last week in Jeddah the epic rivalry ignited once more with a spate of incidents that typified their struggle for the title. On lap 15 at the restart, Verstappen dived around the outside despite being well behind Hamilton and knowing it was impossible to make the corner. Cutting across the run-off, he sliced back onto the track into the path of Hamilton, who once more took avoiding action. Although Verstappen was told to give the place back, it still put Hamilton behind Ocon at the second restart a couple of laps later which compromised the Brit and allowed the Red Bull driver to retake the lead.
Hamilton again had to yield trying to pass Verstappen as the Dutch racer once more missed the apex and once more took to the escape road. For this infringement, Verstappen was told to give the place back and also given a 5 second time penalty, a strange double punishment from the stewards and not in line with their policy for a similar move in Brazil. The biggest talking point came on lap 37, where Hamilton ran into the back of Verstappen not realising the Red Bull was letting him through. Telemetry later showed Verstappen applied 2.4g of braking force, a significant change in speed that caused the collision. The stewards took an unusually lenient view of this sort of incident, opting for a 10-second penalty which retained Max’s P2 finish and conveniently kept the rivals level on points.
The Mercedes ace has used his experience to live to fight another day all season: see turn one at Imola and Spain, and the Brazil near-miss. Had he fought Verstappen’s aggressive overtake or defence like Verstappen did at Silverstone, both drivers would notch up a couple more DNFs for the season. And perhaps we would be taking a dimmer view on certain driving tactics.
Backing out, however, is something the 7-time world champion simply cannot afford in Abu Dhabi
Backing out, however, is something the 7-time world champion simply cannot afford in Abu Dhabi. If he is to take a record-breaking eighth title, he will have to finish ahead of his antagonist Verstappen. For Red Bull, however, a double DNF suits them as their driver would become champion by virtue of having recorded more wins.
Unless, of course, Verstappen’s aggression truly oversteps the mark and he attempts a manoeuvre reminiscent of Prost, Senna and Schumacher in which he takes his title rival out of the running to secure the championship. Schumacher was disqualified from the championship for the second of his attempts to crash out his rival, and in the era of such advanced telemetry and data available to the stewards, Verstappen would surely face the same fate no matter how subtle his potential effort. These incidents are a dent in the legacies of legendary drivers, and surely not the fashion in which Verstappen will want to win a championship.
His driving for the most part has been an excellent demonstration of aggression and skill, though has crossed the line on occasion. Pushing the limit is only natural in such a competitive field, but it would be a great shame to see an unsporting conclusion to this remarkable season. Both drivers will be racing desperately and emotionally in pursuit of the ultimate goal, and a collision hardly seems unlikely given the history of the season. Jeddah last time out epitomised this brutal rivalry, and Abu Dhabi will continue it with a crowning moment.
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