Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen have both saluted the hard but fair racing that has characterised their close rivalry so far in a highly competitive Formula One season. The two drivers once more went head to head at the Portuguese Grand Prix on Sunday with Hamilton coming out on top and after they had battled wheel to wheel both drivers expressed a mutual respect and trust for each other that has come to define their racing relationship.
At the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve, Hamilton and Verstappen raced hard with each other for the third race in succession this season. With Hamilton in second place behind his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas, Verstappen made a superb restart after a safety car period, jumping Hamilton and passing him round the outside through turn one. Then when the Dutch driver made a small error several laps later Hamilton pounced, similarly sweeping past his rival through turn one and making it stick by holding his line through turn three. Both moves were hard, elbows-out racing but fair and acknowledged as such by both drivers.
“It’s been really cool, especially when you race a driver and you know that you can go to the absolute limit,” Verstappen said of their close competition this season. “I guess you can trust each other to just race super-hard. That’s always really nice because you can see in the three races we’ve had it’s been really close to each other but predictable. Lewis has never felt something like: ‘Oh, we’re going to crash,’ or something. I always have full trust in Lewis that we all give each other enough space.”
Hamilton has been beaten to the F1 championship only once in the past seven seasons and then it was by his Mercedes teammate at the time, Nico Rosberg. Their relationship at the team had grown increasingly fractious and was marked by several on-track clashes and a sense that there was little respect for each other while racing. The world champion, however, has felt nothing similar so far with Verstappen and expects their intense but sportsmanlike racing to be maintained even if the battle, as now seems likely, stretches across the remaining 20 of the 23 races this season.
“I just second that,” he said of Verstappen’s comments. “I think it is naturally down to respect and I think both are very, very hard but fair. That’s what makes great racing and great racing drivers and I think we will continue to keep it clean and keep it on the edge but I don’t think either of us has a plan to get any closer than we have been.”
Hamilton and Mercedes have returned what were unexpected successful results at these opening three races after Red Bull looked to be definitively ahead during testing. Mercedes have two wins, both for Hamilton, to Verstappen’s one, and are leading both drivers’ and constructors’ championships. Hamilton leads Verstappen by eight points in the championship.
Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal, believes the two will continue to enjoy a friendly rivalry on track and that the competitive atmosphere engendered by the fight with Red Bull is only proving to be a positive spur for the team.
“They are not crossing the line on track yet,” he said. “But it is going to go head to head, and the rivalry may increase or not but Lewis is completely relaxed about the situation. He enjoys working with the team getting us up to speed because we weren’t there and now this [Mercedes] is just is a fun place.”
Wolff was also eager to point out the extraordinary level to which his driver – 36 years old and in his 15th season in F1 – is now performing. “Lewis just drove an immaculate race,” he said. “It makes no sense to talk of these exceptional Lewis performances because they have been quite regular, it is his standard now and he sets that standard himself.”
Hamilton has won 97 races and has 99 pole positions. He is attempting to take his eighth title this year and last season alone he took 11 wins from 17 races.
This season, however, he has faced a much greater challenge from Verstappen with a resurgent Red Bull. At the opening race in Bahrain the pair vied for the lead throughout the final six laps, with Hamilton in front and Verstappen charging. The Dutchman took the lead briefly but there was drama when he had to give the place back as he had gone off the track to make the move. The pair had given each other just enough space to race throughout.
At the second round in Imola, Verstappen attacked Hamilton through the opening turns on the first lap and although Hamilton defended stoutly Verstappen made his way past. The pair just touched but there was no rule infringement and no penalty was imposed although Hamilton took minor damage as he ran across the kerbs. The British driver believed that had been entirely fair racing and had no complaints as Verstappen went on to win.