Given the drastically contrasting fortunes of how their respective seasons have panned out – with Verstappen enjoying a dominant, record-breaking campaign for Red Bull, and Hamilton unable to fight for the title in a hugely challenging year for Mercedes at the start of a new era of regulations – the two have rarely found themselves sharing the same piece of tarmac.
But Mercedes have enjoyed something of a resurgence in recent races, and during the early stages of Sunday’s Sao Paulo Grand Prix, Hamilton and Verstappen were scrapping at the front of the grid in their first proper on-track battle for nearly a year.
The 2021 arch-rivals came to blows as they went wheel-to-wheel into Turn Two through the Senna Esses. Both were forced off track but were able to continue, with Hamilton dropping from second to eighth and Verstappen requiring a visit to the pits for a new front wing.
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Comparisons have been drawn between Verstappen and Michael Schumacher, both for their relentless performance on track, as well as their aggressive driving style and conduct in wheel-to-wheel combat.
For all his undisputed genius behind the wheel of an F1 car, Schumacher’s career was not without flash points of controversy. The seven-time world champion was involved in several contentious clashes, most notably collisions with title rivals Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve in the 1994 and 1997 season finales.
Like Schumacher, Verstappen is uncompromising and ruthless in his approach. At Interlagos, it felt as though Verstappen had put his car in a position that gave Hamilton one of two possible scenarios; yield, or there will be contact.
Hamilton and Verstappen blame each other
Verstappen claimed Hamilton didn’t leave him enough space, while Hamilton stated “that was no racing incident” over team radio. Verstappen was ultimately slapped with a five-second time penalty for causing the collision in the view of the Sao Paulo stewards.
“To be honest, I went around the outside and I felt he was not going to leave space, so I just went for it,” Verstappen told Sky Sports.
“He didn’t leave me space, so I knew we were going to get together. It cost him the race win, for me it gave me five seconds. It wouldn’t have mattered anything for my race because we were just too slow.
“It’s just a shame. I thought we could race quite well together but clearly the intention was not there to race.”
The argument for Hamilton giving Verstappen more space was the view shared by Sky Sports co-commentator and ex-F1 driver Martin Brundle during the race.
Verstappen was momentarily – albeit briefly – ahead of Hamilton around the outside of Turn 1, but Hamilton was half a car length in front approaching Turn 2.
By the apex, Verstappen had gained more ground on Hamilton by carrying greater speed into the corner, resulting in contact and both cars running off track.
A throwback to their 2021 battle
Contact between Verstappen and Hamilton was a feature of their titanic battle for last year’s world championship, with high-profile clashes coming at Silverstone, Monza and Jeddah.
In stark contrast to 2021, Verstappen’s fights with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc (and even Russell in the Brazil sprint) in 2022 have been clean, leading to praise for Verstappen’s racecraft, conduct and maturity.
But when it comes to going wheel-to-wheel with Hamilton, it seems like a different story.
A quick revisit to last year will show that Hamilton took evasive action on numerous occasions to avoid potential contact during some of their early duels, but with a 33-point deficit to Verstappen after defeat in the Silverstone sprint race, Hamilton knew something had to change.
At the British Grand Prix, Hamilton decided he was no longer going to simply back down to Verstappen. What followed was their contentious first-lap collision which set the tone for the rest of the campaign.
Speaking in season four of Netflix’s Drive To Survive series, which documented their fierce 2021 rivalry, Hamilton suggested that Verstappen races like a ‘bully’.
“I think Max is aggressive as hell,” Hamilton said. “And more often than not, he pushes it to the limit and beyond.
“I’ve raced against a lot of drivers. There are always bullies, but that’s not how I operate. I just try and beat them on track.”
What are the rules on overtaking?
A set of guidelines were issued to the drivers ahead of the 2022 season in a direct response to the polarising topic of driver conduct when overtaking.
The guidelines state that in order for a driver overtaking on the inside to be given sufficient room, they must have a “significant portion” of the car alongside – at the discretion of the stewards.
Among the main factors considered by the stewards is whether the overtaking car’s front tyres are alongside the other car by no later than the apex of the corner, and that the overtaking manoeuvre is done in a “safe and controlled manner”.
In this case, the stewards appeared to deem that Verstappen was not in complete control.
“Verstappen attempted to pass Hamilton on the outside of Turn 1 by braking very late,” the stewards’ report read. “He did not complete the pass in Turn 1 and his excess speed compromised his entry into Turn 2, at which point he made contact with Hamilton.”
In the post-race press conference, Hamilton insisted he is “not concerned” about racing Verstappen in future but suggested that his F1 success has made him a “target” of his long-time rival.
Brazil acted as a reminder that there is no love lost between these two titans. More fireworks will almost certainly be guaranteed if they find themselves fighting over F1’s biggest prize again.