MARTIN SAMUEL: Like Senna and Prost, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen are bitter rivals. They have clashed on and off the track all season, the world title is at stake… no wonder all eyes are on the first turn
- Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen’s rivalry has been compared to Senna-Prost
- The drivers have clashed both on and off the track as their battle goes to the wire
- The war of words between Red Bull and Mercedes has only added to the tension
Senna-Prost. It was October 28 when, sitting comfortably in his Oxford home, Toto Wolff invoked the memory of one of the most notorious episodes in Formula One history.
He had been asked whether the fight between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen was reminiscent of what many regard as the most volatile F1 rivalry, that of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. In 1990, at Suzuka in Japan, Senna took Prost out at the first corner, a collision that ensured he could not be overtaken as drivers’ champion.
It remains, depending on your point of view, the encapsulation of Senna’s determination or of his utter recklessness. Prost described him as ‘a man without value’ in the aftermath.
The F1 title race between Max Verstappen (L) and Lewis Hamilton (R) will conclude on Sunday
The two have been likened to Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, and no one has looked to play down the comparisons
So the recurring comparisons between events in 1990 and the 2021 season were ramping up the tension, given the drivers have been wheel to wheel — and wheel to head on one remarkable occasion — for much of the season.
In the circumstances, one might expect the team principal of Mercedes to play it down, to attempt to defuse the situation.
Not one bit. ‘If it was to come to the scenario of the last race in Abu Dhabi, and they were to be racing each other for the title, whoever is in front is absolutely going to try to do the same as in the Senna-Prost years,’ Wolff told me.
‘If you are racing for the championship and you see it fading away because the other guy is overtaking you, what other tool have you got other than the one that makes sure he can’t?’
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff talked up the possibility of another collision similar to Senna-Prost
One was almost expecting the sharp intake of breath and a watery clarification from the Mercedes media team. That happens. None came.
No matter the controversy — and Hamilton refused to believe that Wolff had talked in such terms several days later — this was clearly a message Mercedes wanted out there. And one they have only doubled down on since.
Christian Horner, Wolff’s opposite number at Red Bull, is incensed. He feels his driver is being slandered and the stewards manipulated. He scorns Mercedes positioning themselves as the underdogs this season.
Red Bull believe the wrong image has been painted of their driver, Verstappen, and are furious
‘It’s like they’re trying to get someone in the penalty box, just to play for a penalty,’ he said as we talked at Red Bull’s base on Friday.
‘They’ve got the seven-time champion and the fastest car since Hungary. Mercedes have killed every other team the last eight years. And Lewis is the underdog? It’s us who have nothing to lose.
‘This would be our biggest achievement in the sport by some distance. We are up against a massive organisation, a really class act with strength and depth.’
At the time when Wolff spoke about the possibility of a last-race head to head, it almost seemed wishful thinking.
Red Bull chief Christian Horner (R) and Wolff (L) have also exchanged heated words this season
On that day, Hamilton trailed Verstappen by 10 points. At one stage, in July, the gap stood at 32. Back then, that the pair could still have the title on the line in Abu Dhabi seemed optimistic.
So Wolff can now add clair-voyance to his many talents, given that he envisaged precisely the friction we have now.
Yet this prospective scenario leaves Red Bull frustrated. They think Mercedes have successfully hijacked the narrative so that any collision on Sunday — and the nature of the sport is that they can happen with nothing, or everything, on the line — will be deemed Verstappen’s fault.
And true, he is the only one who stands to gain if both potential champions fail to finish — gaining the title on races won — yet there also remains a scenario where the drivers come together, not because there is a deliberate attempt to end the race, but because collisions sometimes happen when competing wheel to wheel around tight bends.
A last race head to head seemed wishful thinking in July, but Hamilton has revived his hopes
Equally upsetting for Horner has been the suggestion from race director Michael Masi that championship points could be deducted if it is thought a driver has deliberately sought consequential contact.
Red Bull say this ultimatum is aimed squarely at Verstappen and constitutes unequal treatment. It is a point Horner was anxious to reinforce on Friday.
No deduction of championship points has followed any infringement this season. Indeed, the last time it happened was in 1997, and then only retrospectively, after Michael Schumacher tried unsuccessfully to take out Jacques Villeneuve in the final race of the season.
Even then, the punishment was seen as a token gesture because Villeneuve had already prevailed and was declared champion. Schumacher was denied second place.
‘It just comes back to what do you want, do you want consistency of rules?’ Horner said. ‘What happened in Turn 4 previously, what happened wherever it was, should be applied to this race.
Hamilton would overtake Schumacher as the most successful driver in history should he win
‘You can’t just go and pluck something out of the air and say, “Yep, that’s what will now apply”. I think it would make a mockery of the policing of the drivers’ championship. The piece of the sporting code highlighted in the race director’s notes has always been there. It’s not something introduced for this weekend.
‘You can see why Toto and Lewis, with the disadvantage of race wins, would be pushing for that. But nobody on our side is going into this race saying it’s going to end in a crash.
‘Nobody wants to see this championship decided by the stewards or in a gravel trap. You want to see these two titans who have gone wheel to wheel so often this year go at it again.
‘That’s what we as a team want, that’s what Max as a driver wants. But there needs to be consistency. Our focus is on trying to win this on the track and to do it at the chequered flag.’
Unsurprisingly, Wolff felt Masi had struck precisely the right tone. ‘It’s a good deterrent,’ he said. ‘It keeps the racing clean, says what is on and what is not on, and that not only the race result will matter for the championship, but also the driving standards.’
Hamilton has the experience of the champion but Verstappen is capable of audacious moves
Whoever wins, it will be a landmark achievement. Hamilton would overtake Schumacher as the most successful — and inarguably the greatest — driver in history. With Mercedes likely to take the constructors’ championship, Verstappen could become the first driver since Hamilton in 2008 to win without the best car.
Hamilton was consistently faster in practice on Friday — Red Bull’s well-honed sense of injustice even includes the removal of a turn Mercedes used to find difficult, in a redesigned Abu Dhabi circuit — and expert opinion favours the experience of the champion.
Verstappen, though, has the hunger of youth. ‘Max is a young lad living his dream,’ added Horner. ‘He’s driven his heart out and that’s what has got us to this point. This weekend, I’ll tell him, “Don’t change who you are”.’
And who is he? All eyes will be on that first turn.
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