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Clash of the Titans: Lewis Hamilton vs. Max Verstappen

When Formula 1 agreed to let the cameras roll for the excellent Netflix series Drive to Survive, the idea was to broaden the scope of the sport and bring it to a new audience.

The first three series followed a defined course; while Lewis Hamilton has comfortably accumulated the titles. For the upcoming fourth series, however, things could hardly have been better scripted. The team behind the series and Liberty Media, which bought F1 in 2017, have finally landed a rivalry for the ages, and trying to predict its outcome is nearly impossible.

He pits Lewis Hamilton, seven-time world champion with 101 Grand Prix victories and one of the sport’s oldest statesman at 36, against rising star Max Verstappen. F1 has long been defined by its changing of the guard. Michael Schumacher succeeded Ayrton Senna, then Fernando Alonso did the same with Schumacher.

The next three races could still prove to be an equally important moment for Verstappen. Until this year, 24-year-old Verstappen never had a car at Red Bull fast enough to match Hamilton beyond the occasional race. With three grand prix remaining – Qatar on Sunday followed by Saudi Arabia and then Abu Dhabi – the Dutchman has a 14-point lead in the title race with 78 still in play.

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The title lead has fluctuated throughout the season, with the last race in Brazil being perhaps the most relevant example. Hamilton was disqualified from qualifying for Saturday’s sprint race after his car’s rear wing was found to be 0.2 millimeters outside of legal measures.

For Sunday’s main race, he was relegated from fifth to 10th on the grid due to an additional five-place penalty for changing his engine – he had already used the number of engines allocated per driver during of a season. And yet he made his way through the pitch and avoided contact after being kicked off the track by Verstappen – whose legalities will still be dissected by the sport’s governing body, the FIA, today at Qatar – to achieve one of the best victories of his career.

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A week before at the Mexican Grand Prix, his Mercedes had also raced at Red Bull Verstappen, showing that a week in F1 is an extremely long period. No one really knows what will happen next, partly because of the way the season has gone so far and the fact that the next two races in Qatar and Saudi Arabia take place on tracks where F1 has never raced before.

Regardless of the outcome, this rivalry effectively kept Hamilton in the sport: he longed for a battle on the track. After a thrilling race at Interlagos five days ago, his message was simply that this is how F1 should be. The hope is that 2021 will be the start of a long rivalry.

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Besides their 12-year age gap, there are other clear differences between the two drivers. After a grand prix weekend, Hamilton enjoys mingling with music and fashion circles – his Met Gala appearance is one example – or indulging in his passion for watersports.

In contrast, Verstappen is a stay-at-home boy. His first thought is to return to Monaco, much of his free time being devoted to computer games … unsurprisingly of the racing genre. Then there’s Hamilton the anti-racism advocate, urging fellow pilots and the sport to respond in light of George Floyd’s death ahead of last season’s delayed departure from Covid. He impressively took the rest of the grid with him, creating the Hamilton Commission to address the lack of diversity in the sport.

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At first glance, their origins might hardly seem more different. Hamilton’s dad, Anthony, has held multiple jobs to fund his son’s unlikely F1 climb, while his rival is the son of ex-driver Jos Verstappen. His mother, Sophie Kumpen, was also a racing driver, so the genes are in his favor. 2009 World Champion Jenson Button, a former Hamilton teammate, once told me that Verstappen is naturally the fastest rider in history.

But they share a hard love journey. There are stories of Verstappen Jr being kicked out of the family van on the way home after letting a junior race win slip away with a stupid crash, or workouts where his hands were so cold that he could barely drive and yet his father insisted that he continue.

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Thirteen-time Grand Prix winner David Coulthard, who ended his career with Red Bull, knows the family well having raced Jos and being introduced to Max at a young age. “There was no silver spoon,” he explains. “They had to put in the hard yards. It wasn’t a cozy background like “honey, would you mind going upstairs and doing a few laps?” It was “get in the car, drive, don’t get in until I tell you.”

Both father and son speak humorously about this era, but it clearly instilled a work ethic in Verstappen. The same can be said of Hamilton. The other resemblance of the duo is that they are quite simply the best pilots of their generation. Hamilton v Verstappen in 2021 was not lacking in drama. They first clashed in Bahrain when Verstappen was ruled by the race marshals as having illegally passed Hamilton.

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At the British Grand Prix in July the couple collided, Verstappen hit the barriers at 180 mph and had to be taken to hospital. And the most dramatic was the Italian Grand Prix where they finished off the track with Verstappen’s Red Bull rolling over Hamilton’s head and being parked over his Mercedes.

There remains the potential for a repeat of some of the tightest title races in Formula 1 history: James Hunt against Niki Lauda in 1976 or Senna against Alain Prost in 1989, and most recently Hamilton’s first victory in 2008. against Felipe Massa who came down at the last corner of the whole season.

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Despite their clashes, the relationship has remained fairly civil, though it has had its moments: as Verstappen calling Hamilton a “dumb idiot” and giving him the middle finger during a practice session at the United States Grand Prix. But they mostly left the internal struggles to their team managers, Mercedes’ Toto Wolff and his Red Bull counterpart, Christian Horner.

It created a spectacle, with Horner recently questioning the legality of Mercedes’ new pace, Wolff in turn questioning Red Bull’s rear wing in regards to the rulebook. Team managers and drivers have vowed they won’t back down for the rest of the season. As to how it ends… who knows?

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