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Formula 1

Hamilton’s champion judgement of a ‘full Max Verstappen’ move

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
4 min read

The 100% record of races with wheel-to-wheel fights between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen in Formula 1 this season continued in the Spanish Grand Prix but it was closer than ever to ending in tears.

Even Verstappen’s Red Bull team boss Christian Horner admitted afterwards that with Verstappen committed to a full-blooded pass on the inside, “thankfully Lewis had got out of it because otherwise they would have probably ended up in the fence”.

It’s borderline a scare tactic and that’s part of the game sometimes

“It was just full Max Verstappen,” Horner told Sky Sports F1. He’s right, and that’s what makes Verstappen such a fierce rival for Hamilton to be fighting for the 2021 title with. But that approach does require the other driver to cooperate.

Verstappen has exactly that in Hamilton. They have both spoken enthusiastically about their fights so far and both believe they can continue to keep it clean.

Verstappen’s opening-lap send at Barcelona felt like the hardest move yet, an escalation of what we’ve seen so far but still just about in the realms of what’s acceptable.

It was aggressive from Verstappen and Hamilton had a decision to make in the moment: to commit to his line, which he was entitled to do, or back out.

Some will argue that’s a decision a driver shouldn’t have to make, but Verstappen was not out of control – he just needed Hamilton’s help to avoid contact.

It’s borderline a scare tactic and that’s part of the game sometimes. Whether you think it’s fair or not probably rests on your own definition of hard racing.

Spanish Grand Prix 2021

With the speed Verstappen was taking into the first corner, the move would almost certainly have ended in contact had Hamilton not checked up.

Hamilton wouldn’t have been responsible for that, given it was Verstappen launching one down the inside.

May 09 : Spanish Grand Prix review

But being able to say ‘it wasn’t my fault’ would be little consolation if Hamilton was saying it with his battered Mercedes parked at the side of the track and zero points being added to his championship tally.

Hamilton’s racecraft is not perfect but he tends to get the big judgement calls right and this was another such moment.

Max Verstappen Lewis Hamilton Imola 2021

He’d played the percentages wrong at Imola in trying to sweep around the outside of Verstappen at the first chicane and was crowded out for his trouble, but that was an example of him taking a risk as the aggressor – here, under attack, he needed to take action to accommodate Verstappen’s send.

The move was born from a minor Hamilton misjudgement, as he admitted afterwards there was a brief window for him to dart to the right and defend the inside line when Verstappen briefly tucked back into the tow after the start.

F1 Grand Prix Of Spain

Hamilton accepts that was the moment to “seal the job, but I didn’t”. Having left a gap to Verstappen, Hamilton knew he’d encouraged the attempt and needed to react accordingly.

“As we went to Turn 1 I just made sure I gave as much space as I could to Max,” he said.

“In my mind it’s a marathon not a sprint. I’m just always thinking the long game.

There may come a moment later in the year when Hamilton decides that it’s better to turn in and put the onus on Verstappen to avoid an accident

“And, sure you could be a little bit more aggressive. Do I need to? I’m in the position that I’m in, because I don’t get too aggressive when I don’t need to be.”

It’s a champion’s play, as it demonstrates command of the broader picture. Not unlike when Hamilton was crowded off the track by Charles Leclerc in the 2019 Italian Grand Prix.

There, Leclerc had unceremoniously squeezed Hamilton on the run to the second chicane. Hamilton had every right to hold his ground and let contact be made – instead, he went off-track in avoidance.

In that moment, Hamilton recognised there was more to lose by holding his ground even if it was not necessarily fair for him to cede it.

It was the same at Barcelona. Hamilton accepted that it was not worth getting in the way of and that was the smart decision.

At the time he would never have known he’d go on to win the race, but the ultimate pay-off came a few laps from the end of the grand prix when Hamilton swept past Verstappen to take the lead in the very place he’d lost it little over an hour earlier.

There may come a moment later in the year when Hamilton decides that it’s better to turn in and put the onus on Verstappen to avoid an accident. The frequency of their fights surely means that, purely on the balance of probability, Hamilton will find himself in a situation where he feels it is not his responsibility to yield.

That’ll be F1’s equivalent of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. And then it’ll be on “full Max Verstappen” to show a more nuanced side in battle – lest the title rivals find themselves in the fence after all.

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