Verstappen vs Hamilton – the final showdown awaits
By Joe McKenzie
Well, this is it. Finally we come down to the showdown of what has been a monumental season for the sport of Formula 1. Monumental in the sense that; the sport has gained a significantly notable growth of viewership and fandom than ever before. YouTube average views per video has shot-up, and the success of Liberty Media’s attempt to bring F1 to North America – in the hit Netflix documentary ‘Drive To Survive’ – has started to show real progress in its quest.
This increase in motorsport fans has coincided (and clearly been helped by) with what – at this point - is being described as one of the all-time great championship battles, between Sir Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. Why has this season been particularly special in Formula 1’s 70-year-old history? Let’s break that down now.
Firstly it’s an exceptional example of a ‘generational battle’. Meaning when two clear ‘greats’ of a sport are competing for the ultimate prize, but the difference is akin to a lion pride. The alpha male lion (and it does not get more alpha male than Lewis Hamilton, who is without a doubt the most shining example of someone that has fought tooth and nail from the very moment he joined the sport to get to the position he is now in) and the young feisty challenger who clearly has everything necessary to make himself as dominant as Hamilton has been for over half a decade. Generational battles really do not often happen in any sport, let alone Formula 1. The past two ‘greats’ that could’ve been a part of one would include Michael Schumacher, who retired in 2006, the year before Hamilton would have his rookie season at McLaren in 2007. That was one generational battle that passed by, and looking back further to 1994, Ayrton Senna’s untimely death at the San Marino Grand Prix - coincidentally Schumacher won the GP, and his first World Drivers Championship that year – meant that the world was robbed of seeing what would now be called two ‘G.O.A.Ts’ (greatest of all time) from different generations battling it out.
This year, it could not be clearer that the sport is being treated to exactly what was missed out on almost 30 years ago. Verstappen - who despite being 12-and-a-half years younger than Hamilton, has already spent half a decade in the sport himself and is certainly not a rookie – has matured into a racer that while aggressive and determined beyond belief, can now focus on the bigger picture, accepting the occasional defeat if it helps strive towards more points in the long run. This change in development has shown a side to the Dutchman that many people feel is now the turning point in his career, and that he now shows the capabilities mentally (along with being exceedingly fast on a racetrack) to win multiple world championships himself as the new ‘face’ of F1. Most importantly ex-pros feel this way – I’ve personally lost track of the amount of times Sky Sport’s Formula 1 pundits (all mostly ex world champions or ex race winners themselves) have described Verstappen as a ‘great’, which begs the question: Can you be considered a ‘great’ of your sport, without having won any silverware. In a different sport – for example football – I believe it would be harder to plead this case, but with individual sports, and especially in Verstappen’s case, I can see why it’s been touted so much; such is the rugged domination Verstappen has been able to show in patches so far this year. I don’t think it would be a big statement to predict that if Verstappen were given a vehicle as dominant as Mercedes’ cars have been throughout the bulk of the 2010s, then Verstappen could break all the records that Hamilton has defined as the pinnacle of dominating a sport. When Schumacher won his last race and last championship with Ferrari, it was debated whether anyone could ever match those high standards, and Hamilton and Mercedes have proven it is possible, and then some. Verstappen could do the unthinkable just like his senior and rival.
Secondly, this season has been as action-packed as a neutral F1 fan could hope for. Entertaining races have become few and far between in hybrid era, but this year has put a dent to that. More importantly, not only has the racing been exciting but the amount of on-track battling between the two title challengers has exceeded the usual amount. Hamilton and Verstappen have now either crashed or at least hit into each other on 3 separate occasions, and their battling for 1st place - involving either an overtake or a wheel-to-wheel moment between them - has made up just under half of the races so far this season (9 out of 20). Even GPs such as Spain and France this year – where one of them overtook the other to win with only a few laps to spare - are barely mentioned in discussion over the best highlights of their battle this season, yet were awesome strategic and on-the-edge-of-your-seat Sundays in their own right. The fact that this colossal fight between them has taken place on so many occasions, and that it would coincide with F1’s increased American exposure, would have been absolute music to Liberty Media’s ears when discussing their future objectives after purchasing Formula 1 in 2017.
This article would go on forever if I discussed the other major talking points of this season – of which there are many (McLaren vs Ferrari, Kimi Räikkönen’s retirement, George Russell taking the seat from Valterri Bottas, Haas’ utter embarrassment of a season and the emergence of China’s first Formula 1 driver in Guanyu Zhou, to name just a few) – but all pale in comparison to the intensity of this war for the biggest title going. So intense it is, that the battling hasn’t even been just on-track. The topsy-turvy relationship and ‘banter’ between Mercedes and Red Bull – featured best by their team principals: Toto Wolff and Christian Horner – has become sour and toxic throughout this season, and while it could be debated whether this is actually a good thing for the sport in general, it has certainly added to the flavour of this epic between the two teams – at least from a neutral perspective. Their comments to the media about each other, appealing to the FIA over possible cheating, and attempts to fan the flames, rather than containing them, has meant the raw emotion of this year has spilled over on several occasions, especially as we draw closer to the end of this season. Sky Sports interviews from Horner leading up to Qatar have felt more like emotional pleas rather than the confident and assertive responses he’s known for, while Wolff’s reaction to the camera man watching him during Hamilton’s impressive overtake for the lead against Verstappen in Brazil has now become an instant thumbnail of the season. These side characters – while many might personally find egregious and not necessary – have only added to the spectacle surrounding the two main protagonists.
So what to expect from the next two weekends? Well that is harder to say. The emergence of Mercedes’ new improved power unit makes the case that despite being 21 points behind Verstappen on the Sunday of the Brazilian Grand Prix a few weeks ago, Hamilton has had a monumental shift that now makes him slight favourite to win the championship. To do this in the space of two races is very impressive, and Red Bull will be biting their nails hoping some increased power of their own can be harnessed coming into Saudi Arabia’s inaugural Grand Prix, which looks very top-speed heavy, in theory helping the Mercedes cause. Abu Dhabi’s new improvements to their usually dull circuit not only hopefully improves the racing, but also adds to the amount of circuit taken at full throttle – again helping Mercedes who looked about 20 miles-an-hour quicker in a straight line in Brazil and Qatar.
What can be expected is a staunch defence from Verstappen whatever happens. Even if the Mercedes car is quicker, the Dutchman will do everything to keep ahead of Hamilton (including a crash if necessary) or keeping within Hamilton’s rear wing enough to be able to spring any type of strategic undercut or overcut. I think seeing any more penalties would be surprising at this stage, and two qualification Saturdays with Hamilton and Verstappen both on the front row seem extremely likely, although with the way Mercedes seem to relish taking penalties for the sake of stronger equipment available, I wouldn’t completely rule out a 5-grid penalty either. In that example, it then becomes vital for Sergio Perez to drop the inconsistency and play the team role he was brought to Red Bull to do. Another interesting storyline, Perez’s season has been hot and cold, but the improvement he has brought to Red Bull compared to their seasons without Daniel Ricciardo cannot be understated. With an incredible 5 points separating the two constructors at this stage of the season, don’t rule out a Perez vs Bottas battle being just as exciting or influential as the main event – although honestly any scrap the pair might be destined to get into will evaporate for the sake of their strategy teams, using the two secondary drivers as pawns to slow down Verstappen or Hamilton.
Whatever happens, in under two weeks’ time the landscape of Formula 1 will be entirely different, whichever one of these two titans who take the crown. Let me explain:
If Hamilton does stage the latest of comebacks and wins the championship in the final race after being behind for so long. It will signal possibly his greatest achievement, and finally break the most important record belonging to the sport of F1 – who has the most driver’s championships. If Hamilton wins his eighth, and overtakes Schumacher for the most ever, then it will become harder for anyone to argue that Lewis Hamilton isn’t the absolute greatest to ever grace the sport. There will truly be no record left for him to take – except for elongating the records he already owns – and for someone that is the greatest record breaker in any sport worldwide currently, that might signal the beginning of the end for his career. He might have one year left on his contract at Mercedes, but with a new ambitious teammate, new regulations meaning Mercedes might lose their dominance, and a new generation of talent all improving each year, 2022 might end up being Hamilton’s last, paving the way for a new era of Formula 1.
From Verstappen’s point-of-view, it will be a heart wrenching blow for him to lose at such a fine margin after such an exhausting year, and whether this season’s intensity takes it’s toll on Max, the same way it took its toll on Felipe Massa after 2008 (which he never recovered from) is up for debate. Most spectators would probably feel, given the rugged determination of his persona, that Verstappen will be destined to win a title sooner or later, even if it is not this year.
If Verstappen were to hold on and win the championship however, that would entail quite possibly one of the most interesting storylines next season could hope for. Hamilton would have lost his chance of beating that greatest of records by just the slimmest of margins, and the overarching plot of next season would inevitably become – can he pull the almightiest of comebacks and win his eighth championship in 2022. Against a new spectrum of car quality where Mercedes would likely be hindered, a new teammate that has his own career to think about, and against a world champion Max Verstappen who is only getting better, can Hamilton – who himself does not have time on his side – shock everyone in the same manner as he has done his entire career. Can he, against impossible odds, take the championship back, giving himself and his team – the most dominant in the history of Formula 1 - one last dance.