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We love it when the elbows come out in F1

Formula One history is littered with examples of bitter rivalry which exposes the inner child that lurks within all drivers. Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen are simply staying true to the sport's tradition
Thu, Jul 22, 2021

Lewis Hamilton, king of Silverstone. PHOTO: Dan Istitene (Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)

In a sport in which prangs – albeit costly ones – are commonplace because the point is to race each other at full pelt in confined spaces, it’s always baffling when Formula One people get all het up about something as regular an occurrence as a crash.

The whodunit emanating from Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen's coming together (or should that be the shunting off track of the latter by the former?) at the British Grand Prix shows no signs of abating, the latest being that Red Bull are roping in sports lawyers to see if they can get more recourse for the incident than the 10-second penalty they did from the stewards at Silverstone.

While Hamilton claims to have been "ahead" at the corner despite video evidence to the contrary, and Verstappen sounded a little entitled in declaring the corner "his", this layman's oversimplification of the incident is that the two played a game of high-speed chicken in which the younger man came off second best.

One of the Sky commentators prudently pointed out that had this been a battle for seventh or eighth, the crash would have been put under that umbrella that covers all manner of sins in motorsport – a racing incident.

But the thing is not only was a race win at stake here, a decisive lead in this year's world championship was also on the line, not to mention the backdrop of a battle of wills between a 36-year-old seven-time world champion against the 23-year-old future of the sport.

Going into Silverstone, Hamilton was in the increasingly desperate situation of being 33 points adrift of a talented opponent for whom Red Bull had finally found a car worthy of helping showcase his outrageous gifts in the world championship race.

Coupled with it being a home race and Mercedes not having won in four races – unthinkable in the sport's hybrid era – you had the kind of heady cocktail which saw Hamilton put his elbows out and tap into an aggression he hasn't had to since he was trying to prove himself as a youngster.

The result was the kind of fallout which has seen Verstappen's father, Jos – the driving force behind Max's F1 career, which began at 17 when he wasn't even allowed to drive a road car, and a former racing driver himself – advise Mercedes team Principal Toto Wolff to lose his number for allowing his driver to wildly celebrate victory while his son was in hospital for precautionary checks.

In all earnest, this was always predictable because every close F1 title race has a flashpoint when the two protagonists do away with sportsmanship and start hating each other. For Hamilton and Verstappen that moment was on Sunday.

From Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, to Michael Schumacher and everyone who has ever dared to vigorously contest a world championship against the "Red Baron", F1 history is littered with examples of bitter rivalry which exposes the inner child that lurks within all drivers.

Up until the British Grand Prix, relations had appeared cordial, with Verstappen serenely going about his business and Hamilton gracious despite being put in the unusual position of defeat.

The main reason the two had never really collided before was because Hamilton – who has always claimed he wants closer competition during his domination of the sport – perennially had something to lose, the world championship, while Verstappen was fighting for the odd win here and there.

'Mad Max', about whom F1 writer Mark Hughes recently said "mention restraint to Max Verstappen and you'd probably need to give him a dictionary at the same time", appears to have laboured under the misapprehension that Hamilton would always pull out whenever conflict was in the offing.

But his miscalculation was that when you're the world championship leader you have a lead to protect, which means you can no longer wilfully chop across people – like he appeared to be at Silverstone and has done so before to Hamilton – and need to play the long game.

Given that he, too, could have spun off and retired from the 290km/h collision, Hamilton didn't exactly have nothing to lose when you look at how far behind he was on points. But he took a calculated gamble on the fiery Dutchman's alpha personality and won.

There are other reasons why the stakes are so high in this year's championship, the most important being that the racing fraternity would like to see someone beat Hamilton to a title for the first time since ex-Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg did in 2016.

Hamilton, who has morphed from figment of McLaren's PR imagination by being the first black driver on the grid to arguably being the most successful driver in the sport's history, has, depending on who you listen to, become the best and worst thing about F1.

On one hand he represents the inspirational black excellence ideals fellow trailblazers Serena Williams and Tiger Woods did in sports supposedly not for black people, while on the other, there's the sickening idea that his greatest of all time claims are nothing but hype because it's always been about the car.

And so with 100 pole positions and 99 race wins – which ordinarily would make him the most successful driver in history – the anti-Lewis brigade are clinging on to the fact that he mustn't add to the seven world titles he has jointly with Schumacher at the top of the pile.

It also doesn't help that Hamilton, who once dabbled prominently in the playboy life afforded an F1 driver by living in Monte Carlo, dating pop star Nicole Scherzinger and having A-list celebrities attend his races, has become a vegan Black Lives Matter advocate who talks about carbon emissions as he flies from race to race in a private jet.

To his detractors, most of whom are bigoted at best and racist at worst, he is a $40-million a year man who thinks he's earned the right to lecture them on human decency.

Make no mistake, Verstappen's time has come, but the question is whether he will beat Lewis before he can go a long way towards tilting the GOAT debate in his favour by standing alone at the top of F1 or not.

In a strange way, that is why the elbows are out.