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Be it Hunt v Lauda, Senna versus Prost or Schumacher against Hill, F1 has forever been defined by its competitions and conflicts, with Max Verstappen and Red Bull having ignited the latest with Lewis Hamilton.
There was Verstappen’s 51G first-lap crash at the British Grand Prix, after which he accused his title rival of being disrespectful as he celebrated while Verstappen was lying in hospital.
More recently at Monza their two cars ended up parked in the gravel with Verstappen’s Red Bull on top of the Mercedes of Hamilton. In the aftermath, Hamilton accused the Dutchman of feeling the pressure of the title rush, to which he replied “he doesn’t know me”.
Another clash, another off-track war of words barely seems a corner away at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix and yet Verstappen is adamant there is not quite the fractiousness people like to portray.
Of his relationship with his rival for the 2021 crown, he said: “It’s fine to be honest, it’s good. We talk. After the last race, we spoke, but once we jump in the car we try to beat each other. That’s quite a normal way of thinking.”
He baulks at the suggestion there is any hatred between the pair, be it on or off the track, and is understandably relishing a head-to-head which has defined 2021.
“We’ve always been very focused on trying to do the best we can and win the race,” he said, “and this year we have a more close battle. In previous years, it was always quite straightforward who was going to win the race. To have two teams battling for the win is very good for Formula 1.”
It may yet be their rivalry plays out as bumper cars at 100 to 200mph in the ensuing six races but, whatever the outcome, Verstappen is of the belief that he is the quicker man and will fight to prove it.
“Of course, I guess there’s a certain kind of arrogance to it but you have to be,” he said. “You do have to believe that [you’re the quickest] to be successful in the sport. If you’re the nice kid in the paddock, I don’t think you’ll reach very far. So that’s how I grew up.”
It’s not overstepping the mark to say Verstappen was born for Formula 1. His father Jos was an ex-F1 driver while his mother Sophie Kumpen was a former kart racer. It led ex-world champion Jenson Button, who raced both parents during his career, to suggest the younger Verstappen is genetically the quickest man ever to get behind the wheel of an F1 car.
“I don’t need to agree but it’s nice that Jenson says something like that,” said Verstappen. “It’s always been my target from when I was practising with my dad to be fast out of the box. It’s something you have naturally but you can practise it to a certain extent.”
When Hamilton was 10 years old, he told then McLaren boss Ron Dennis he would become F1 world champion. Fittingly, it was at the same age when Verstappen said he started to start properly working on that goal.
So how special would it be to pull off something that has been at least 14 years in the making come the season’s end in December?
“It’s basically what you’ve worked for your whole life until now,” he said. “Initially, I was just having fun driving in go karts with friends and of course it got more and more serious, and for me more serious at a younger age compared to other people because my dad already tried to prepare me for the future.
“I’ve had pole positions, I’ve had wins, all of those great moments but, of course, what you want to achieve is win a championship and that, of course, I’ve already tried to do this year. Let’s hope it works, we’ll find out.”
So far, it is a season that has ebbed and flowed. One could argue the results of the last two races mean the momentum appears to be with Verstappen despite Mercedes having seemingly extricated more pace.
Hamilton won the Russian Grand Prix but Verstappen produced a stunning drive from the back of the grid – courtesy of his penalty for an engine change – to finish as runner-up. And in Turkey a fortnight ago, Verstappen was again second as a pitstop error by Hamilton and Mercedes cost them valuable points.
But Verstappen countered: “I don’t believe in these kind of momentum swings. All the time people talk about it and then in the race it’s suddenly different.
“You just have to every weekend try to get the best out of your package. You have to try to optimise everything. We try to nail every single aspect. Every weekend, there are new challenges you have to overcome. I don’t believe in this momentum stuff.”
However the final races of 2021 play out, Verstappen believes it is just the beginning of a new era for the sport. And he is relishing the addition of George Russell into a potential title fight as Hamilton’s Mercedes team-mate next season.
“Let’s hope other teams can join in too and make it more difficult for everyone,” said Verstappen. “That’s generally more positive for F1 to have more teams battling for a championship. It will take George a little bit of time. It will be an interesting battle to watch the young guy fighting against the old bull.”
For now, it’s merely Red Bull against the old bull.