Fine margins have made the difference in all three Formula 1 races this season as Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen have engaged in forceful but fair wheel-to-wheel fights.
There are only eight points between them at the top of the championship standings and that Hamilton advantage has been earned the hard way, with the two drivers trading blows across the start of the year.
It’s currently advantage Hamilton with two wins to Verstappen’s one, and an eight-point lead in the championship.
Crucially, each driver has won after defeating the other in wheel-to-wheel combat.
We’re being spoiled at the moment because in the context of recent seasons of Mercedes domination, it’s so rare for these duels to actually matter.
Another way to look at it is that over the first three races, every fight between the two drivers has decided the winner.
Verstappen attacked Hamilton late on in Bahrain but couldn’t keep it on the track and had to give the place back up again, then couldn’t launch another overtake before the finish.
At Imola, Hamilton tried an around-the-outside pass at the start, and was crowded onto the kerbs at the first corner by Verstappen in the wet conditions.
And in Portugal, Verstappen mugged Hamilton at the restart before a small error let Hamilton get back ahead and then make sure Verstappen ran out of road in his efforts to take it back.
“It’s been really cool, especially when you race a driver and you know that you can go to the absolute limit,” says Verstappen.
“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 had something like ‘oh, we’re going to crash’. I always have full trust in Lewis that we will give each other enough space.”
In all three races, other factors have come into play. In Bahrain it was strategy, at Imola Hamilton made a big mistake later in the race, and in Portugal Hamilton still had to catch and pass team-mate Valtteri Bottas to win.
But we’ve probably had more legitimate fights between title protagonists in three races in 2021 than we’ve had in total since the last acrimonious Hamilton-Nico Rosberg season in 2016.
In fact, how often have title rivals have battled like this in the first three races? It feels like a vintage start. And with 20 more grands prix still to go, there’s every chance we’re going to have many more between now and the end of the season.
Hamilton even joked that Mercedes and Red Bull are going to be “sick of each other” at the end. But both drivers are revelling in their fight, and it’s remained surprisingly good-natured so far.
Everyone is hoping this intensity can go the distance. But if it does, will an epic rivalry turn ugly?
“It is naturally down to respect and I think we’re both very, very hard but fair,” says Hamilton.
“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.
“I don’t think either of us has a plan to get any closer than we have been.”
Neither is the type to risk a silly crash but this is a new situation – or will develop into a new situation, at the current rate.
Hamilton had tense moments against Rosberg in 2016 but as team-mates it was rare that those tensions properly boiled over. Verstappen’s never been in an F1 title fight.
These battles always require a fine judgement of risk and reward and the championship picture is part of the consideration.
“They’re not crossing the line on the track yet because the risk of losing points is just too big,” said Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff of the title rivals.
“The rivalry may increase or not. But I see Lewis completely relaxed about the situation.
“He enjoys every bit, working with the team, getting us up to speed because we weren’t there. And this is just a fun place.”
No arguments here. And it’s entirely right to believe that both Hamilton and Verstappen will continue to race hard but fair for as long as possible.
But as the season goes on, and the opportunities to beat one another reduce, the rewards may start to outweigh the risk. And the dynamic can shift when that happens.
The extreme manifestation of this is the Ayrton Senna/Alain Prost rivalry, when they had their two championship-deciding collisions in 1989 and 1990.
That’s not to say Hamilton and Verstappen will deliberately crash if they have a points advantage and it wins them the title if both cars retire!
But if their fight remains this close for the rest of the year, and the championship situation is finely poised, then it is almost inevitable that factoring in the consequences of different results will influence their decision-making.
And in that moment is where this good-natured but intense rivalry has the biggest risk of creating a major flashpoint.