Imola, redolent with stories of heroism and tragedy, plays host to the second stage of a rivalry that is, just possibly, shaping up to be one of the great conflicts in Formula One history.
On Friday, it was advantage Hamilton as his Dutch rival fell victim to his Red Bull suffering a mechanical problem 10 minutes into second practice. Verstappen pulled over at the end of the pit straight with a suspected driveshaft failure.
Lewis Hamilton (R) vs Max Verstappen (L) is shaping up to be one of the biggest F1 rivalries
He managed just five laps, as Valtteri Bottas led Hamilton in a Mercedes one-two, as he had in the morning’s earlier running.
Bizarrely, Hamilton has spoken this weekend of how his keenest competitor has been Sebastian Vettel, the former Red Bull and Ferrari man now at Aston Martin. Well, forgive me, but I never knew there was a rivalry to speak of.
Hamilton and Fernando Alonso? Yes. Hamilton and Nico Rosberg? Yes. But Hamilton and Vettel? Do me a favour!
It was hardly Senna-Prost or Hunt-Lauda. Hamilton-Vettel is a clash that time forgot.
Anyway, back to Verstappen and Hamilton. The Briton won their duel in Bahrain three weeks ago, Hamilton finding a brilliance that held off the advances of Verstappen — driving the very marginally better car.
Verstappen (above) suffered a mechanical problem 10 minutes into second practice
The Dutchman has spoken of the need for a ‘proper fight’ as he bids to dethrone rival Hamilton
Verstappen said: ‘F1 needs a proper fight because the last few years have been a bit boring.
‘As a fan you really want to be looking forward to the next race, knowing that there are two or three teams fighting for that win.
‘I guess after Lewis won his last six championships where the battle was not as high for him, now he really wants that battle.
‘He has already achieved everything, way more than you can ever imagine. Winning so many titles is very rare and it is not going to happen many times.
‘But he is like, “OK, I am getting towards the end of my career and it is nice to see the younger guys making it more difficult for me”.
‘And, of course, I am very happy to make it more difficult for him.’
Hamilton is clearly energised by the fight. At 36, he seems as keen as ever to make his will prevail. He showed his greater experience to win their last battle — with a composure under pressure that is unmatched — in Bahrain.
Hamilton’s future at Mercedes is in doubt, with Verstappen tipped as a possible successor
But Verstappen believes he can prevail over the season, a 23-round marathon.
He said: ‘Yes, I think so. I just need to be quick on the track and that will do it.
‘Lewis has a lot of experience but that is fine, I am up for it. Lewis is a cool guy and a fair driver so we race hard and trust each other which is very important. We have a lot of respect for each other and enjoy the battle.
‘But is there more pressure on me now? No, it is less because I have a faster car. Everything is easier. It is easier to put a good lap together. It is easier when you are at the front.
‘There are no nerves when you start first because that is what I love. I like to be chased. I prefer that much more than hunting.’
Hamilton (right) raised eyebrows by calling Sebastian Vettel (left) his biggest rival in F1
Asked whether he might have a future at Mercedes if Hamilton leaves at the end of the season, Verstappen added: ‘I have a contract at Red Bull until 2023, and I am very happy where I am. There is no reason to change.
‘I never think too far ahead because I want to live in the moment. I want to win races and championships with Red Bull and that is why I signed for so long. I feel at home here and that is very important to me.’
Elsewhere, there are rumours around Aston Martin and the future of respected team principal Otmar Szafnauer. The British team are in a recruitment drive — hiring up to 200 new people, including former Ferrari boss Marco Mattiacci as ‘growth and development consultant’.
However, executive chairman Lawrence Stroll said: ‘I categorically deny there is any truth whatsoever in the rumour.’