The friendly rivalry that existed between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen earlier this Formula 1 season is gone.
The first nine races were intense. There was wheel-to-wheel action, but always respect between the drivers. Then on the opening lap of the British Grand Prix, on July 18, everything changed.
Hamilton of Mercedes tried to pass Verstappen of Red Bull and they touched wheels, causing Verstappen to crash into a barrier at 150 m.p.h. Verstappen went to the hospital but was not seriously injured.
Hamilton, who did not crash after the encounter, received a 10-second penalty for causing a collision but still won his eighth British Grand Prix.
The complaining started right away. After the race, Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, said Hamilton, a seven-time champion, was “desperate” and “dangerous” and had made “an amateur’s mistake.” Red Bull later said the crash cost it $1.8 million.
Writing on social media, Verstappen said Hamilton’s move was dangerous. He criticized Hamilton for “disrespectful and unsportsmanlike behavior” for celebrating a victory while he was in the hospital.
Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal, said, “It always takes two to tango and these two are not giving each other an inch.”
Hamilton did not apologize but understood that “emotions are running high.” He said he did not know Verstappen was in the hospital when he celebrated. Hamilton had been told by his team that Verstappen had stepped out of his car unaided and appeared OK.
The incident fueled debate. Nico Rosberg, the 2016 champion and a former teammate of Hamilton, said it had “ramped up the intensity.” Damon Hill, the 1996 champion, said “it was inevitable at some point there was going to be some coming together of the two.”
“It was so aggressive,” he said. “I have never seen Lewis drive that aggressively.”
This is, of course, not the first time that two drivers have angered each other and made their feelings so public. Some of the rivalries in Formula 1 have been fueled by the dislike of a competitor, such as between Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet, and most recently Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber.
In an interview, Wolff said that from the beginning of this year the fight with Red Bull and Verstappen had been “tough.”
“You can see it’s going to be very, very close between the two drivers and between the two teams, so there is always a war on track,” Wolff said.
Wolff and Horner had been sparring in June, during the Azerbaijan Grand Prix weekend.
Horner had told Wolff to “keep his mouth shut.” At the time there was wrangling over the movement of the rear wings on Red Bull’s cars and the front wings on the Mercedes cars. The parts are not allowed to flex.
Wolff said at Azerbaijan that Horner was “a bit of a windbag who wants to be on camera.”
Later, Wolff said, “I got annoyed in Baku, and that is not something that’s normally happening to me. On reflection, I want to concentrate my focus on the team and on myself, rather than be distracted by noise.”
At the end of last season, Wolff decided to remain as team principal for three years. Last year, he was considering relinquishing the position. It is a decision he does not regret.
“It’s good fun,” Wolff said about the competition with Red Bull. “I think that until now, my toughest fights were in 2018 and 2019 against Ferrari. They were a super-tough opponent, and we struggled to perform against them.
“This one here, how I perceive it, is that it is less straining on our resources than the other two were. Back then, the pressure was enormous. We’re still very ambitious to win, but it’s not suffocating.”
Before the next race after the crash, in Hungary on Aug. 1, Hamilton said he had called Verstappen “to check he feels OK and let him know the respect is still there.”
“It is perhaps not reciprocated, but that’s OK,” Hamilton added.
Verstappen continued to express displeasure over what took place at Silverstone. “When one guy is in the hospital and the other one is waving the flag around like nothing has happened — you pushed the guy into the wall with 51G,” he said.
“Not only that, just the whole reaction of the team besides that. That is not how you celebrate a win, especially not a win how they got it. That is what I found really disrespectful and in a way, it shows how they really are.”
Verstappen confirmed he had spoken to Hamilton. “The relationship? At the end of the day, we are racers. We just keep going. Of course, I am not happy with what happened but we just keep on pushing.
“We are still fighting for the championship together, and we will race in the best manner going forward. At least from my side.”
Then at the Hungarian Grand Prix, Verstappen was clipped again in an accident that began with Mercedes. At the first corner of the opening lap on a damp track, Valtteri Bottas, Hamilton’s teammate, ran into the back of Lando Norris of McLaren.
Norris then hit Verstappen, and Bottas hit the second Red Bull car, driven by Sergio Pérez, forcing him to retire.
With a damaged car, Verstappen finished ninth. Hamilton came in second to reclaim the lead in the Drivers’ Championship going into Formula 1’s two-week summer break in August.
After claiming pole position and standing on the podium, Hamilton was booed by many of the fans. He said the negativity “fuels me.” Wolff called the booing “an archaic instinct that shouldn’t be part of the sport.” But he recognized that “emotions have been very high the past few weeks.”
After the race, an unhappy Verstappen said, “Again, taken out by a Mercedes, it is not what you want.”
He said the two crashes were “freak moments that have cost us a lot of points.” Before the British Grand Prix, Verstappen had a 32-point lead over Hamilton. Two races later, he trailed by eight points.
An unusual event followed at the next race, in Belgium. Torrential rain resulted in a one-lap race, the shortest in Formula 1 history. Verstappen won, with Hamilton third, to close the gap between them to three points.
At the last race, Formula 1 returned to Verstappen’s home country, the Netherlands, for the first time since 1985. Hamilton was booed after qualifying second behind Verstappen, who said it was not his responsibility to tell his supporters not to boo Hamilton.
“You know when you go to a football match, into a home ground, the opposition will be booed at some point,” Verstappen said. “It is not up to the local club to go onto the speakers and say ‘Guys, you cannot boo,’ because it will naturally happen.
“Of course, some of them will boo, but I cannot decide for them,” he said. “I can say ‘You cannot do this,’ but do you really think they are going to listen to me?”
He and Hamilton started in the front row for the first time since the British Grand Prix, threatening another first-lap battle. Wolff said it was time to forget that race.
“I think the two protagonists will start side by side more often this season, and I don’t think we can assume it will always end up in an incident,” he said.
There was none in the Netherlands, and Verstappen won with ease, narrowing Mercedes’s lead in the Constructors’ Championship to 12 points. With Hamilton finishing second, Verstappen also reclaimed the top of the Drivers’ Championship by three points.
“During the [summer] break, I was like ‘We really need to speed things up here otherwise they [Mercedes] are going to run away with it.’” Verstappen said. “We did pick it up a bit. I feel like we still need a bit more, but it’s heading in the right direction.
“There are still a lot of different tracks coming up, so it will definitely swing both ways.”
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