If there was one thing that wasn’t confusing about F1 in Saudi Arabia last week, it’s that we’re probably looking at a two-car Championship battle between Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez. And despite Checo winning pretty comfortably with Max close behind, there was enough under-the-surface tension between the two drivers that got us thinking… Could this be the second coming of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg?
Red Bull took a comfortable 1-2 in Jeddah, but if you listened closely to the radio messages, there was some hidden spice. Verstappen set the fastest lap of the race on the final lap, taking the bonus point that Perez had.
It was pretty obvious during and after the race that Max had gone into business for himself – Saying he cared about the fastest lap despite his race engineer dismissing his request to know what the time was, and saying after the race that: “When you’re fighting for a championship and when it looks like it’s just between two cars.” and “We’re free to race – and of course, we had a target laptime to the end, but you know, there’s a point on the line.”
Max isn’t stupid. He knows the score, and he’s the reigning World Champion, and not here to finish in second. He was pretty downbeat for a man who had just comeback from 15th to 2nd, Dad Jos looked even more miserable than usual on the sidelines, with Perez openly talking about yet more miscommunication within the team.
And it’s not the first time we’ve had the Red Bull drivers’ relationship strained. Max refused to give Checo his 6th place back in Brazil last season, with internet murmurs it was an act of revenge for Checo allegedly crashing on purpose in Monaco qualifying earlier that season to keep his higher grid spot in a race he’d go onto win.
Jos was infuriated that the team didn’t do more to help Max that weekend, saying: “Max was not helped by the chosen strategy. It turned completely to Checo‘s favour. That was disappointing to me, and I would have liked it to be different for the championship leader.” That was the first real public flashpoint between the two drivers.
Seeing the last year or so play out reminded us a lot of how another dominant season started…
…Think back to 2014. Mercedes began the turbo-hybrid era with one of the most dominant F1 cars ever seen. Straight away, it was pretty obvious we were looking at a straight title fight between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. It was seemingly friendly when they first fought in Bahrain, but both drivers were using engine settings they weren’t supposed to use in order to fight for the win. Hamilton did it again in Spain to hold off Rosberg, who was right behind him.
It was a minor story at the time, but it absolutely set the tone for what eventually became one of the sport’s biggest modern flashpoints. First there was Hamilton’s clear unhappiness with Rosberg’s controversial ‘mistake’ in qualifying at Monaco, and then it all came to a head at Spa when they finally hit each other. Daniel Ricciardo stole the win, and the two Mercedes drivers’ fractured relationship never truly recovered.
It’s hard not to see the similarities between the two scenarios. Nico Rosberg didn’t have the reputation and body of work that Hamilton had when he joined Mercedes. He was a shrewd veteran who had only just won his first race when Hamilton arrived with 20 of them.
Rosberg ultimately just wasn’t as good as Hamilton over their four years together, but he was good enough to keep it close, take advantage of opportunities when presented to him and eventually, win a World Title for himself.
Sergio Perez was a late signing for a Red Bull team that had run out of academy prospects to promote from within, and a team dominated by Max Verstappen as their leader. Max has proven his worth as an all-time great. 36 career wins, 2 World Championships and Red Bull back on top after eight years without a major honour.
Like Nico, Checo is largely considered not to be on Max’s level, but can he do just enough to make things difficult for the team? Will this simmering feud boil over at some point? Will Red Bull play team orders like they have before? Will Checo get a fair crack at the title?
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