Tuesday, October 26News That Matters

The rivalry set to define the season: Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen are energised by the fight

So, what if Lewis Hamilton had been hounding Max Verstappen rather than the other way around in Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix?

I have a firm answer, albeit only surmise. The seven-time world champion would have made the win stick by passing the other car and claiming victory.

Hamilton, of course, won anyway, withstanding the advance from behind — exhibiting a cigarette paper-wide advantage in race craft that is one difference that makes him, as I wrote on Monday, by a small margin, and based on the evidence of the moment, the greatest driver in the world today. 

Why so?

Lewis Hamilton made the perfect statement in Bahrain as he bids to win an eighth world title

Lewis Hamilton made the perfect statement in Bahrain as he bids to win an eighth world title

Lewis Hamilton made the perfect statement in Bahrain as he bids to win an eighth world title

Max Verstappen threw everything he had at Hamilton, but the Mercedes star held his own

Max Verstappen threw everything he had at Hamilton, but the Mercedes star held his own

Max Verstappen threw everything he had at Hamilton, but the Mercedes star held his own

EXPERIENCE 

Hamilton has developed his natural skills as an all-out racer, a pugilist, to combine with an appreciation of how best to conserve his tyres to maximum benefit. His all-round ability to read a race and play the long game is something he has honed since he lost the world title to Nico Rosberg in 2016. He has now become the complete performer.

If there is any diminution of his outright pace – he is aged 36 – then that is compensated for by his overall understanding of the equipment he sits in.

He has tempered the slight impetuosity he showed in his early years, the desire to press home his natural talent by sheer bravura. He has found a way that allows him to keep in perfect balance the needs of the minute and the longer demands of a maturing race.

Verstappen, perhaps more visceral and untrained, relies more on gut instinct, on making his mark emphatically, pressing home his point when he sees the first opportunity, sometimes to his cost.

At 23, he is a newcomer to the title battle. He has shown his obvious class but is less well-schooled in the demands of the fight at the front of the field and testing his abilities in white heat. 

He thinks he has every answer – and certainly he has most of them – but he cannot be certain he possesses all of them. He will find out with the rest of us.

Hamilton, by contrast, was thrown into the top echelon as early as his first season, in 2007, when in a competitive McLaren he was toe-to-toe with team-mate Fernando Alonso and the then-strong Ferraris.

The Brit's experience paid off on Sunday as Verstappen looked to overtake him at the death

The Brit's experience paid off on Sunday as Verstappen looked to overtake him at the death

The Brit’s experience paid off on Sunday as Verstappen looked to overtake him at the death

TEMPERAMENT  

Hamilton is battle-hardened and, even if he routinely voices concerns over the radio to his race engineer Peter Bonnington, he keeps his cool, working through the race in his own mind, like Alonso, the only other man on the grid who can be spoken of in the same breath as him and Verstappen.

His composure was on display on Sunday. He drove very fairly, very cleanly. He always does, just as another world champion Kimi Raikkonen does. With Hamilton, you don’t fret that a silly smash is around every corner.

That was seen when he and Verstappen came into a close dance around Turn Four. Indeed, Hamilton suggested that Turn One is where he would have made the decisive move, rather than Turn Four. There was, to be harsh, a do-or-die element to the Red Bull driver’s hurrah.

Verstappen also failed over the closing three laps to put himself in a position to take on Hamilton again. If roles had been reversed, a mature Lewis would have refocused and mounted a second assault on the man in front.

Hamilton's rivalry with Verstappen is set to thrill Formula One fans throughout the season

Hamilton's rivalry with Verstappen is set to thrill Formula One fans throughout the season

Hamilton’s rivalry with Verstappen is set to thrill Formula One fans throughout the season

DESIRE 

Their motivations are the same but different. Both men have massive drive to win. Verstappen wants to prove that he is world champion material – he is. Hamilton, always only validated in his own mind by winning week after week, feels this urge undiminished despite 96 race wins.

It is what he lives for.

He is further stimulated by the need to answer the suggestion he is a son of fortune driving what has been, until Red Bull took a possible edge this season, the all-dominant Mercedes. 

George Russell stepping in and acquitting himself so ably in Bahrain last December, when Hamilton was out with Covid-19, is an extra immediate spur. 

Both title rivals are energised by the fight between them – a test of virility in the only language they know.

They are pleased to be in a fight. The outcome will play a large part in defining them both.

Formula One's leading duo are energised by the fight between them this season

Formula One's leading duo are energised by the fight between them this season

Formula One’s leading duo are energised by the fight between them this season