Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton have produced a Formula One season for the ages. The enthralling title race has generated buzz, drawing new eyes to the sport. But have the driving and war of words crossed the limit of what is acceptable?
Formula One had been waiting for this for a long time. Ever since the regulations were overhauled in 2014, with the sport switching to the hybrid power unit, Mercedes has been dominant. Save for Ferrari’s brief challenges during parts of the 2017 and 2018 seasons, the Silver Arrows have often entered the track secure in the knowledge that the race was theirs to lose.
While the drivers make the sport what it is, engineering excellence plays a defining role, with the fastest car being more important for success than the fastest driver. For F1 to have an exciting season, the first requirement is to have at least two closely matched teams. This is not an easy thing to achieve, especially in modern F1, considering the varying budgets across the grid.
But 2021 has been different. Red Bull has found the right engineering solutions to match Mercedes so evenly that just a couple of tenths of a second have separated the teams across 21 races so far.
And lo and behold, F1 has had the most exciting season in years, with Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen producing one dramatic race after another. Going into the season finale, the two drivers are tied on points, with Verstappen higher in the standings by virtue of having more wins.
The parity between the two teams has also meant the rivalry between the drivers has been intense as they have often crossed swords at the sharp end of the grid.
Verstappen has always been one of the most aggressive drivers on the grid, with a take-no-prisoners attitude in close combat. Until this season, however, he never had the car to fight for the title, which meant there was not a huge downside to his driving style. So it was interesting to see whether the young Dutchman would change his approach this year.
While he was circumspect, knowing he had a car that did not need over-driving, he was fairly combative and got the better of Hamilton in wheel-to-wheel battles in the first half of the season.
From around mid-season, things started getting tense between the two. Silverstone was the spark that lit the fuse. Hamilton drew a line in the sand, deciding he wasn’t going to let his rival dictate terms. Verstappen came off worse in the skirmish. Then in Monza, the two took each other out.
Though the stewards split the blame between the drivers — Hamilton in Silverstone and Verstappen in Monza — these were borderline racing incidents. To a large extent, this is what the fans want to see: two drivers at the top of their game going at it with their elbows out.
But an ill-tempered war of words between the drivers and team bosses had begun to accompany the on-track racing, with nothing seemingly off limits — neither snide barbs on the quality of the opponent’s driving skills nor questions about the legality of the other’s car.
Tensions rose during the Brazilian GP when Red Bull asked the FIA about Mercedes’ rear wing after the Silver Arrows found an extra step in their straight-line speed. The FIA discovered a small issue — not the one Red Bull raised — and sent Hamilton to the back of the grid for the sprint race. This move by Red Bull was seen as payback for Mercedes questioning Red Bull’s rear wing, alleging that it was flexing more than legally permitted, which had caused the FIA to issue a new technical directive.
Despite the grid penalty, Hamilton came back fighting and won the race but not before he was pushed wide off the track by Verstappen. It was a borderline move that attracted no penalties, but it set a precedent for what is considered acceptable racing and had a direct effect on what unfolded in Jeddah. Verstappen tried the same move again, and what had seemed like hard and fair racing until then suddenly veered into a potentially dangerous situation.
Verstappen produced three questionable moves on Hamilton in Saudi Arabia and was deemed to have been at fault on all three occasions. First he pushed Hamilton wide despite the latter having edged slightly ahead before the braking point. Then he went off-track to stay ahead and, when asked to give up the place, he was adjudged to have brake-tested Hamilton while slowing down, causing the seven-time champion to hit him from behind.
Hamilton was a touch fortunate: not only did he not suffer huge damage, but he also got away with more than a hint of cheekiness. His not wanting to pass the slowing Verstappen before the DRS detection zone — wary of ceding the advantage of using the DRS on the start/finish straight to his rival — contributed to the incident, too.
At Jeddah, it was as if Verstappen, knowing he had a slightly slower car, was ready to put everything on the line to stay ahead, considering he had an eight-point lead and was not overly bothered about both of them not making the finish.
If one were to trace Verstappen’s lineage among the sport’s historical greats, he is clearly from the Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher school of driving, which argues that exceptionally talented drivers should give no inch to their competitors and often push the limits of what is acceptable. It is no surprise that Senna and Schumacher were principal actors in four separate title-deciding final races that ended in crashes.
Even before the events of Sunday, the tight battle this season has renewed much-needed interest among the fans. The circumstances of this year’s fight make for a compelling, organic narrative. While Hamilton is the senior statesman fighting to create history — a record eighth crown would put him above Schumacher — the prodigious Verstappen is hoping to secure his first world title, something that many believe is his destiny since he started racing professionally in karts.
It has also come at the right moment in the sport’s history. F1, which has worked hard to tap new audiences, has begun to have some success, thanks largely to its ‘Drive to Survive’ documentary series on Netflix. The show has managed to make even the last three dull championship seasons look enticing, offering a small peek into the glamorous world of F1.
Although the events of Sunday set the virtual world on fire and have now set up an enthralling final race — for the first time in five years, the title is on the line in the season-ender — one also wonders if the rivalry has gone too far.
The season has seen some breathtaking racing from the protagonists, but the prospect of the title fight ending in a crash or, worse, the stewards’ room is starting to look very real. One hopes this is not the final chapter of what has been one of the best seasons of all time. Nothing turns off potential new fans like the title being decided off-track in incoherent legalese.
The two drivers owe it to the fans to race clean and give a fitting end to a championship that will be remembered for years to come.
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