Warning: The following sentence is going to anger many an F1 fan. The 2021 season was one the sport badly needed. Fresh off the back of the lightning-in-a-bottle effect of Drive To Survive Season 2 dropping right when the world stopped turning due to the global pandemic, it opened up the doors to the biggest rivalry F1’s had in almost a decade.
As much as Abu Dhabi left a bitter taste in the mouths of many, it’s hard to argue it wasn’t compelling. Both Mercs and Red Bull had cars that at times were best, Hamilton driving at the peak of his powers as Max pushed the subjective nature of stewarding to its absolute limit. 18 of the seasons’ 22 races were won by those two, and their tie entering the final round was only the second time it had happened in the sport’s then 71-year history.
This was meant to be the rivalry that crossed eras. Hamilton the transcendent star, the second chapter of his career carving out the sport’s greatest dominant run, vs Verstappen, the face of the new youth movement and brightest prospect since Michael Schumacher. Until it wasn’t.
2022 had Mercedes shoot for the moon with an ambitious “zero sidepod” concept that turned their car into a bouncy castle, while Red Bull nailed the major regulation shift. Verstappen’s now on pace for F1’s greatest single-season ever, while for Mercedes a podium is now considered a good day at the office.
And despite the massive gulf in performance, the flashes we’ve had between them have still produced fireworks. Verstappen smashing into Hamilton at Brazil last season was a stark reminder of days gone by. Hamilton had no problem squeezing Verstappen into a rare withdrawal in Australia this season. And now, there’s been a subtle war of words over the dreaded D-Word – Dominance.
During Austria’s pre-event media appearances, Hamilton suggested a bold idea – Put a limit on when teams can start developing the following year’s car in an attempt to rein in a dominant runner in the field. He said that it wasn’t targeting anyone in particular, but when Verstappen’s won 22 out of the last 31 races, he’s not fooling anyone.
It’s incredibly easy to call Hamilton a hypocrite given Lewis’ first eight V6-hybrid era seasons looked like, well… y’know, this:
79 Wins, 72 Pole Positions, 46 Fastest Laps, 128 Podiums, 6 World Championships
…But he has a point. In a sport that’s more self-aware than ever in trying to make itself more competitive via a cost cap and a sliding wind tunnel allowance scheme, the idea of staggering development to remove an advantage the big teams have is a noble one.
But there are some problems with that. First of all, it’d be impossible to enforce. If I bring a new front wing to a Grand Prix and run it, even if it’s meant to be on next year’s car, does that count? How do you look so closely at a factory’s work that you can specifically police what’s for the current car or the next one? And even if you could, as much as we as fans are more invested in the teams and drivers of F1 than ever before, this is still an engineering competition. And at what point do you breach the fundamental principle of this sport?
When Verstappen responded with an unsurprisingly blunt rejection of the idea, citing Lewis’ own dominance as justification – it’d also be easy to forget that Hamilton was able to avoid some of that anti-dominance talk because he had the added difficulty of a competitive teammate in Nico Rosberg, and then a genuine antagonist for a couple of years in Sebastian Vettel—reminder: Max Verstappen won last year’s championship by 146 points.
Call this for what it is, and forgive me for using such a dirty word when it comes to sports discourse – politicians playing politics.
If you’re Max Verstappen, you want the best position to win for as long as you can now you’ve finally climbed the mountain. Most people would. And if you’re Lewis Hamilton, a man in his Age 38 season openly chasing that elusive eighth title and the final major counting record left in the books, you’d use your clout and influence (probably the greatest of any single driver ever) to try and bring yourself back into play, even if it might make you look a little silly to those who wear orange every week or so.
And it wouldn’t be Hamilton vs Verstappen without a bit more on-track playfighting as Hamilton accidentally blocked Verstappen at the end of the Sprint Shootout’s first session, only for Max to immediately retaliate, en route to Lewis starting said Sprint from 18th. Like two siblings fighting for the first go on the new PlayStation on Christmas Day.
Until Mercedes closes the gap to Red Bull, or the sport forces the issue via the new power units or a regulation change sooner than that, this is how this rivalry is going to continue to develop. Because, above all else, if there’s one thing both these men are still world-class at, it’s pettiness.
And that, my friends, makes racing’s world go round.