SILVERSTONE, England — The dust won’t settle on the British Grand Prix for a while.
The collision between title contenders Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton at Silverstone was not only a significant moment in this year’s championship, but also be a defining moment in what looks set to become one of F1’s most legendary rivalries.
Just as Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost are remembered for their collisions at Suzuka in 1989 and 1990 and Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill for their clash in Adelaide in 1994, the 2021 British Grand Prix will be remembered as the day when the gloves came off between Hamilton and Verstappen.
And as was the case with the previous examples, there was an element of inevitability to Sunday’s accident. For the first nine races of the season, the battle between Verstappen and Hamilton had been brewing with wheel-to-wheel action in Bahrain, Imola, Portimao, Barcelona and France, but the explosive nature of the incident, which resulted in Verstappen being helicoptered to hospital for precautionary checks, was still shocking.
The argument over whether Hamilton was to blame divided opinion in the paddock on Sunday night — as did the 10-second penalty issued by the stewards that Hamilton overcame to win the race.
Understandably, Verstappen was upset by the outcome — although unable to speak directly to the media — while his team principal at Red Bull, Christian Horner, was downright furious.
“Putting a fellow driver in hospital, writing off the car, and receiving a menial penalty and winning the grand prix doesn’t feel like much of a penalty,” Horner said. “I think it just felt like a desperate move from Lewis.
“He lost the start, got down the straight, wheel banging with Max down there, then to stick a wheel up the inside of Copse corner, one of the fastest corners in the championship, pretty much flat out, 180 mph, there’s only ever going to be one consequence like that.
“It’s just disappointing from a seven-time world champion that he makes such a desperate move and puts a fellow driver in hospital.”
Mercedes countered those arguments by citing the guide the stewards are supposed to follow to determine blame in such incidents as proof Hamilton was not at fault (although by Sunday evening the team had the result it wanted, meaning the vocabulary was rather less forceful).
“We didn’t think the penalty was deserved,” Mercedes’ head trackside engineering Andrew Shovlin said. “If you look at the guide that the stewards have to determine who is at fault in terms of overtaking, Lewis was sufficiently alongside and we felt that Max should have given him racing room.
“If you look at the sprint race and even the opening lap of the main race, Lewis was constantly having to back out of it to avoid a collision and he was able to put his car into a position where he was able to stand his ground. Max drives aggressively and it’s inevitable that one day we were going to get an accident there.
“But we were pleased with the job that Lewis did and slightly disappointed to get the penalty, we were just relieved we were still able to win the race.”
Fortunately, Verstappen was unharmed in the accident and was given a clean bill of health later in the evening, but the ramifications of Sunday’s race will be long lasting.
After winning the race, Hamilton benefited from a 25-point swing in the drivers’ championship while Mercedes benefited from a 40-point swing in in the constructors’ championship. But above all else, the intensity of the battle for both titles this year has ramped up significantly.
Who was to blame?
The incident itself was the culmination of half a lap of hard and fast racing, but had some of its roots in the previous day’s sprint race.
Saturday’s sprint, the first of its kind in Formula One, set the grid for Sunday’s race and saw Verstappen take pole position from Hamilton with an overtaking move at the first corner. Hamilton attempted to fight back later in the opening lap of the sprint, but he ended up on the outside of Copse corner, the same corner they collided at on Sunday, and was forced to back out.
Although a lap of Silverstone facilitates overtaking for the first eight corners, positions are typically decided by the 180 mph Copse corner, as it is then followed by a high-speed sequence known as Maggots, Becketts and Chapel, which is almost always single file.
On Saturday, Hamilton had no choice but to back off on the approach to Copse as Verstappen had the inside line and was able to defend. But it became apparent to the Mercedes driver from that incident that he had a straight-line speed advantage on the preceding straight and, perhaps, if the same situation played out on Sunday, he could use that advantage to force his way up the inside.
“[On Saturday] I went down the left-hand side and I really regretted not going for the gap that was down the right-hand side and so I dummied him, moved to the left and then moved to the right for that gap,” Hamilton said after the race.
“I was pretty far up alongside him but I then could see he wasn’t going to back-out and we went into the corner and then we collided. Of course, that’s never the way I ever want to win a race or just in general to race but these things do happen.”
Mercedes’ data also indicated that the Honda engine in the Red Bull was not deploying the full energy from its hybrid system through the flat-out Copse corner, whereas the Mercedes’ power unit was. That was another extra little edge Hamilton knew he would have on Sunday if the two were fighting on the approach to the corner.
But Hamilton also knew that if he failed to gain the position on the opening lap at Copse, as was the case on Saturday, it would be incredibly difficult to chase down and pass the Red Bull over the remainder of the race. It was a crucial opportunity that may not have appeared again.
“I think he knew exactly that,” Horner said. “He hadn’t managed it down the Wellington Straight, I think he was wound up by yesterday’s result and I think, the atmosphere, the crowd and everything, he was obviously pretty motivated and made a massive misjudgement.
“Yes, he got a penalty for it, but it’s fairly meaningless. That was his only opportunity I think. He knew had Max come through that corner he might not have seen him again for the afternoon. For me it was a desperate move that thankfully didn’t have worse consequences than a written off car and a bruised and battered driver.”
On Sunday, Hamilton got himself in position on the inside on the approach to Copse and alongside Verstappen. However, as they approached the corner, the Mercedes driver’s tightened angle meant he had to back out more than Verstappen before turning in. That meant that as the two cars committed to the corner, Hamilton was slightly behind Verstappen, which is why his front left tyre made contact with Verstappen’s front right.
In the stewards’ ruling of the incident, which found Hamilton predominantly to blame, they referenced Hamilton’s distance from the apex when the collision occurred as the reason the Mercedes driver was at fault. That’s hard to argue against as onboard footage shows Hamilton is unlikely to get close to the black and white painted kerbs on the inside of the corner, with or without the contact. Yet Verstappen was equally committed to the corner and, from Hamilton’s perspective, cuts across in front of the Mercedes.
The document Shovlin refers to in the quote above that is used by the stewards as a guide to such incidents suggests that if a driver has the inside line and is significantly alongside his rival, as Hamilton was, then he is within his rights to attempt a move providing he can “make the corner cleanly”.
Although the document, seen by ESPN, is fairly basic and is intended as a guide for lower speed corners than Copse, the stewards could still argue that by missing the apex by the amount Hamilton did and colliding with Verstappen, he did not make the corner cleanly. However, no reference to that guidance was made in the stewards’ report on the incident.
It was interesting, however, that Charles Leclerc, who was running third at the time and was directly behind the accident, felt it should have been treated as a racing incident.
“I think it’s a racing incident,” he said. “It’s quite difficult to put the blame on one or the other.
“Obviously there was space on the inside. Maybe Lewis was not completely at the apex but it’s also true that Max was quite aggressive on the outside. So, things happen, so what is the most important today is that Max is unharmed and is fine.”
However, it is important to remember that very few people in the world know what it’s like to drive these cars on the limit and even experienced drivers like Daniel Ricciardo, who has been racing in F1 for 10 years, struggle to call an incident as nuanced as Sunday’s.
“It is hard,” Ricciardo said. “They are racing for the championship and they are racing so hard. And look like Max gave him room, but when you come so close in these high-speed corners you lose downforce.
“Obviously nothing was intentional but you could see that Lewis understeered into him, I’m not sure if it is being investigated. But the main thing is that hopefully Max is more or less okay.”
Later in the race Hamilton completed a similar move on Leclerc for the lead without contact, although Leclerc ran wide and off the road after leaving Hamilton space. Although no two incidents are the same, Hamilton suggested that Verstappen should have acted in a similar way on lap one.
“Firstly, Charles was very respectful in terms of leaving a gap,” Hamilton said. “I got somewhere alongside him so he knew that I was there but he stayed committed and just did a wider line and he nearly kept it [on the track] and that was really great racing.
“I think for me in that moment, I backed out at one point just to make sure that we didn’t come together but I think it was just a really nice balance and I think that’s really how the racing should go and close. In a perfect world, that’s what would have happened in the first attempt but different time, different place, different driver.”
Leclerc added: “I knew Lewis was in the inside, I left a space and unfortunately I think I had stayed in front but in the very end of the corner I got a snap and lost a little bit of time and then Lewis got in front of me.”
Hamilton went on to secure the victory in front of his home crowd and 25 crucial points that closes the gap to Verstappen to just eight in the drivers’ championship. The result followed five consecutive Red Bull victories in a period when Verstappen’s car appears to be getting stronger and Mercedes has admitted to turning off development on Hamilton’s.
But it’s not so much the maths of the title battle as the added tension that will be the focus when F1 reconvenes in Budapest in two weeks’ time. Before being released from hospital, Verstappen tweeted that the penalty did not “do justice to the dangerous move Lewis made on track” and followed up by saying “watching the celebrations while still in hospital is disrespectful and unsportsmanlike behaviour”.
Hamilton responded in his own post on social media, saying the race was “a reminder of the dangers we face in the sport” while sending his “best wishes” to Verstappen and calling him an “incredible competitor”.
Nice words from the seven-time champion, but ones that should not be confused with an apology.
“I saw a quick clip of it when I went back to the garage but I naturally will go back and have time to reflect on it,” Hamilton said immediately after the race. “I don’t think, from my current understanding, that I’m in a position to have to apologise for anything. We’re out there racing.
“I heard that Max is in hospital and that definitely concerns me. None of us ever want any of us to ever get injured, that’s never my intention, so I really hope that he’s OK.
“I’ll hit him up after this just to check that he’s OK and we live to fight another day. There’ll be a lot of tough races coming up and we have to learn to strike a decent balance. I don’t agree with stewards but I take my penalty on the chin and get on with my job. I’m not going to whine about it.
“Everyone’s going to have a different opinion. I don’t really particularly care what people think so I just do what I do and I’m really grateful for today.”
We’re now ten races into the 2021 season, but this one is only just getting started.