Eyes on Hamilton vs Verstappen battle at Russian GP

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Are Verstappen and Hamilton heading down a familiar dark path as Senna vs Prost?

Formula 1 this weekend heads to the unloved Sochi for the Russian Grand Prix, and while the former Winter Olympics venue is the least inspiring on the calendar, all eyes will be fixed on what happens next between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen.

At Monza, these two immovable objects once again collided, crashing out together as they did at Silverstone. It was at a lower speed this time, but only the ‘halo’ safety bars over Hamilton’s cockpit saved him from a serious head injury or even payment of the ultimate price.

The stakes are always high in motorsport, but when respect between two adversaries becomes too brittle, the consequences can all too easily spiral into deadly realms.

We’ve been here before

At Silverstone, the stewards placed the blame for the Copse collision at Hamilton’s door, but the 10-second penalty wasn’t enough to stop him winning the British GP. At Monza, Verstappen was “predominantly” at fault, apparently, although with his Red Bull’s nose shovelling gravel, there was no way back for Verstappen in this one.

You’ll have your own view. Toto Wolff’s “tactical foul” accusation was, I thought, a low blow and an indication of just how toxic things have become between the Mercedes-AMG and Red Bull camps.

But his rhetorical question “How far can we go?” was valid. A catalogue of minor incidents and two major clashes between the title protagonists can now be totted up and there’s a running theme through all of them: these two fantastic F1 drivers do respect each other, but there’s a lack of trust between them. Poles apart as characters, the rivalry has simmered to a boiling point where neither will back down when it comes to the crunch – and that’s where we enter Senna versus Prost territory.

It’s in their hands

At 36 and with all those wins and titles behind him, Hamilton is more mature than 23-year-old Verstappen, as he should be. He’s the Prost, if you like, to Verstappen’s Senna, and evidence shows he is more likely to see the bigger picture in the heat of the moment.

But like Prost, Hamilton’s patience has its limits. On the first lap at Monza, the pair touched at the della Roggia second chicane, and it was only Hamilton’s sensible decision to cut the corner – and thereby hand back the third place he’d just gained from Lando Norris – that avoided an accident.

But when the tables were reversed on lap 26 at the Rettifilo chicane and this time Verstappen was on the attack, Hamilton wasn’t about to back out for a second time. He squeezed the space more than he probably would have for anyone else, at a stupidly tight chicane that has always induced contact during dogfights.

Both could have avoided the collision, both chose not to. That Verstappen was handed a three-place grid penalty for this weekend’s Sochi grand prix will clearly make a victory tough for him in Russia, especially as overtaking here is even more difficult than it is at Monza.

But will the threat of punishment make him think twice if the pair once again find themselves going for the same piece of race track? Even with a world title at stake, I doubt it. But what could be the consequences if it does happen for a third time?

They’re still only five points apart, so from a championship perspective the Monza collision had little effect on the season outcome. Next time, if one escapes and scores while the other doesn’t, as at Silverstone, it could be a clincher.

And without a change in attitude from both, there’s every reason it will happen again. As it was for Senna, pure aggression is part of Verstappen’s make-up and he won’t dial it down. Like Prost, Hamilton has earned respect as a clean racer – but one who absolutely won’t be intimidated. Penalties, rules for racing and team boss pep talks only go so far. These two must resolve this impasse between them, to avoid what could become a catastrophe.

The question is, has enough respect survived or are they heading for a moment of terrible inevitability? Senna and Prost had Suzuka 1990, the most reprehensible moment in F1 history. Now that was a tactical foul, and such an act must never happen again. Fate doesn’t exist, there’s only choice – and it’s down to them. How do you want to be remembered, fellas?

On the right track

It’s strange to feel strange about McLaren winning a grand prix. It was nine years and 170 races since Jenson Button won the 2012 Brazilian GP, so Daniel Ricciardo’s return-to-form drive to an unexpected win at Monza – not to mention Lando Norris making it a team 1-2 – was a feel-good result that contrasted happily with the hand-wringing over the Hamilton-Verstappen clash.

For all of Mercedes-AMG’s success in the past eight years, it’s still McLaren that remains a distant second to Ferrari in the F1 wins table: 283 for the Prancing Horse versus 183 for McLaren and 119 for the Three-Pointed Star. But after such a barren spell – still well short of Ligier’s near-15-year gap between Jacques Laffite’s Canadian GP win in 1981 and Olivier Panis’s Monaco victory in 1996 – McLaren is no longer considered an F1 winner in a contemporary context. Odd to write that.

So will that now change?

Is McLaren truly back? Boss Zak Brown and team principal Andreas Seidl were sensible to state the team still has a long way to go before it can win regularly. Much relies on their success in making the best of the new regulations for 2022. But what Monza and the team’s fine form as the third-best this year underlines is that finally McLaren is on the right track. Nothing strange about that.

Damien Smith

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