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From the moment a clearly furious Max Verstappen effectively told his race engineer to shut up following a botched pit-stop on Sunday, twice clearly hissing “F— sake” over the team radio, there was a sense of creeping inevitability about what was to come.
It was a feeling only heightened when title rival Lewis Hamilton entered the pits one lap later and also suffered a slow stop, re-entering the race directly in front of Verstappen’s Red Bull when he would otherwise have been a few hundred metres ahead.
The fact that the two championship protagonists found themselves side by side at that exact moment may have been coincidental. But their subsequent collision was not. As the two cars flew into the slow-speed Rettifilo chicane, neither prepared to yield an inch, contact became inevitable.
If things stay as they are, with just five points separating them in the drivers’ standings and tensions increasingly boiling over, it will not be the last we see this season.
It has been building to this point, of course. The relationship between Hamilton and Verstappen has been slowly deteriorating over the course of the season. As the tension has ramped up, and the incidents have mounted, the language they are using, the body language in the mixed zone and in press conferences, has changed noticeably.
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Earlier in the year it was all very respectful. After the wheel-to-wheel incident in Bahrain at the first race of the season, for instance, when Verstappen was forced to give back the position he had gained for passing off the track, or even their coming together in Imola, they spoke of “trust” and mutual admiration.
“I don’t need Nico to make me realise how good Lewis is,” Verstappen said in Portugal after Hamilton had profited from his error to claim victory. “I know he’s very good, otherwise you don’t win so many championships.”
The Dutchman added that their rivalry was “really cool”.
“When you know that you can go to the absolute limit, I guess you can trust each other to just race super hard,” he said. “I think that’s always really nice because you can see in the three races... it’s been really close to each other but predictable. Lewis has never had 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.”
That all changed after Silverstone, when Hamilton was found by the stewards to be “predominantly to blame” for their high-speed collision that put Verstappen in hospital. The Red Bull driver accused Mercedes of celebrating their subsequent win in a “disrespectful” manner and the bad blood has festered. From then on, their rivalry has been like a tinderbox, waiting to ignite.
Those tensions came to a head at Monza, not once but twice. The two drivers might have taken each other out on the opening lap had Hamilton not yielded around the outside of turn four. When they met later in the race, there was too much at stake for either to back off.
Verstappen claimed afterwards that his failure to check on Hamilton, despite his Red Bull nearly taking his rival’s head off, was because he had seen Hamilton trying to engage reverse.
That may be the case, but it did nothing to help to repair relations or build respect. In fact, Hamilton made a point later of saying that he did not appreciate Verstappen’s lack of empathy.
What happens now? With Mercedes’ Toto Wolff calling for stewards to intervene on ‘tactical fouls’ - effectively accusing Verstappen of causing the collision so as to end both their races rather than possibly lose points in the championship race - and Red Bull’s team principal Christian Horner saying he was “disappointed” by that suggestion, the tensions do not just extend to the two drivers.
Verstappen claimed they were “professional enough to talk about it”. But that trust that he referred to earlier in the year, which he claimed was “always there” when battling the seven-time world champion, has clearly evaporated.
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“At the end of the day, after [the race] it’s easy to say you can avoid these things,” he told reporters in Monza. “At the time you have to trust each other and hope that you leave each other enough space. Very quickly of course, there wasn’t space for two cars.
“I trusted him to fight, I wanted him to fight — everybody starts to put the link between Silverstone in the memory, but I don’t think that had anything to do with it. We are all professional enough to keep on going and race each other.”
We shall see. Hamilton, for his part, made the point that he did not have “a history” of these incidents down the years, suggesting the issue was more to do with Verstappen.
“When you get away with things, you just continue to do it,” he said, pointedly. “We do need to look into this so the right decisions are being made because nobody wants to see anyone get injured.”
Perhaps that is the answer. It would help if stewards could come down harder. But with every ex-driver and pundit having a different view of what exactly happened, and neither driver willing to accept responsibility for this season’s clashes, it is highly unlikely this will be the last time an ugly yet enthralling feud ignites before the end of the season.