The 2021 Formula 1 title fight reached fever pitch at the British Grand Prix with an opening-lap crash between the two championship protagonists Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen.
Although there have been some close calls between the duo earlier this season, their first-lap British GP shunt marks a significant point in their rivalry as the season approaches half-distance.
Our writers assess the impact of the clash and what it means for the title duel moving forward:
Neither driver can afford to give in next time
I don’t think the Silverstone incident between Verstappen and Hamilton is the last we will see this year, they are both aggressive drivers and in reality that is what you need to be in order to be a winner. It has always been the same, give in too easy and the other driver will start to dominate those close battles.
As Verstappen showed on Saturday in the sprint race – and Verstappen and Hamilton tried to do on Sunday – if you are in one of the two fastest cars in the race then you need to lead from the start to have a chance of the win. Overtaking a car of more or less equal performance is almost impossible outside of the first lap.
Hamilton went on to win after getting a 10-second penalty but that was only because his closest competition was out of the race.
We all want to see close racing and a bit of rubbing won’t do any harm but there’s a fine line between achieving that with respect for the other driver you are racing with or by putting all the responsibility of survival on the other driver and I think that is what Hamilton did to Verstappen on Sunday.
For sure there has to be some control over this situation otherwise it will just turn into bumper cars.
With such a vast difference in the performance of these cars perhaps it’s time for the penalties to change from a time penalty to a position penalty, this could be initiated immediately and you need to stay in that new position at least once across the start/finish line.
This would be a lot less confusion for the spectator or viewer – after all, that’s what happens to grid penalties for similar infringements.
Expect an immediate follow-up flashpoint
I can’t see any scenario other than these two being on the front row in Hungary, and we know that the first couple of corners of Hungary lend themselves very kindly to running your rival out of road. So, I would be surprised if it doesn’t create an immediate follow-up flashpoint.
Then we have the summer break where maybe tensions can simmer down a little bit, emotions can calm down, and we’ll come back after there’s a bit of a reset.
Except… I can’t see how this doesn’t run through the rest of the season. It’s notched the rivalry up, and now it comes down to how they react. Is Hamilton going to feel emboldened now in not yielding to Verstappen? Maybe Max will look at this and feel he should have given an extra half a car’s width just to be safe? Or he might feel ‘he’s had me off, I’m standing my ground in the future because I’m not going to be the one that’s intimidated’.
Toxicity among fans will only increase
Given how much time I spend looking at website traffic figures, normally I’m a big fan of F1 controversy, but I’m very uneasy about where this one’s heading.
This is the first time F1 has had a full-on rivalry between two drivers with such passionate fanbases in the social media era, and while I truly believe the majority of Hamilton and Verstappen supporters stay on the right side of reason in their fervency, there are some unpleasant outliers.
The racist abuse Hamilton’s received is the ugliest manifestation of that, but even beneath that outrageous level there’s a lot of blinkered vitriol making comments sections and social media threads unpleasant places to be. And that’s uncomfortable as spectators return to circuits too.
You would absolutely and rightly expect a Hamilton fan to probably see Sunday as Verstappen’s fault and vice versa and to not be too interested in the opposing argument. But there’s still a line that can be crossed in how that’s expressed. Those lines were being bulldozed over already by too many people even before the rivals collided.
For what it’s worth, the more I watch the tangle the more I think Hamilton was taking a chance too far as he moved back across to try the narrowing gap on the inside after his initial dummy. He was relying on cooperation from a driver who was (rightly) never likely to cooperate, at a very high-stakes place on the track.
Far from his finest hour, but not deliberate. And a clash of some form had seemed increasingly inevitable in the middle of a title fight between rivals this tough, especially on a potentially pivotal weekend like this when Mercedes had what might be a rare chance to regain some ground.
Red Bull and Verstappen were right to be furious, but on reflection, they must surely see it as a move they might’ve tried themselves in other circumstances and I don’t think it’ll necessarily change the tone of the personal battle.
But it might’ve irrevocably soured the debate in the wider world.
It will change the dynamic, but we don’t know how
The accident cannot fail to impact the Hamilton/Verstappen on-track dynamic, but what we cannot say for sure is how. Fortunately, we will be able to find out because it is inevitable they will cross paths again soon enough.
Hamilton recognises that to win this championship he has no choice but to be aggressive given the Red Bull is – and presumably will continue to be – the stronger car. As for Verstappen, he’s understandably unhappy with what happened at Silverstone but will know that he might need to be the one to make some of the allowances Hamilton feels he has had to make in battle in the past.
But they are also fierce competitors who will understand the situation the other is in and therefore it’s not simply about adjusting their own approach, but ‘playing’ the opponent. Who does that better could well be the one who prevails in the end. It will all start once the F1 circus is back together in Budapest, with the initial skirmishes taking place off track with what the pair have to say about their ongoing approach.
It makes for a fascinating battle, with two great drivers hopefully continuing to test each other and push the limits.
What we can be sure of is that both will stand their ground and have the self-confidence and certainty that all the great champions share. And there’s every chance that will put them on a collision course again.
But this is what top-line sport is about, great performers pushing each other to the limit.
Verstappen won’t lose any sleep
Hamilton had given us a few hints that a moment like this would come. He made clear on at least a couple of occasions that he felt it was only his actions in battle with Verstappen that had prevented a collision before now.
You could tell from the body language of the cars on the first lap of the grand prix compared to the sprint race, that Hamilton had decided Sunday was the day to make his point.
Quite often in F1 history a collision between title rivals brews because one driver feels he has been the one ceding ground more often. Hamilton’s even been on the other side of that equation with Nico Rosberg.
It’s debatable if it’s ever worked in the past. And will Verstappen really lose sleep over it in this case? The debate over the last 24 hours has been “was it a racing incident or Hamilton’s fault?” for the most part. Verstappen left a tiny amount of racing room for Hamilton, so he’s probably pretty content that he didn’t do anything wrong.
I’d only expect it to make a difference if Verstappen can build up a big points lead again. In an even fight with Hamilton he’ll see no reason to give up a corner, but if he ends up more than 30 points ahead again, he might decide to live to fight another day.
Don’t presume it will lead to more clashes
After such a dramatic flashpoint in their rivalry, it’s very easy to jump to the conclusion that this will be the first of many clashes between Hamilton and Verstappen.
But recent F1 history suggests the opposite – high-profile on-track incidents between title protagonists are few and far between in the last 20 years and rarely transpire as a regular occurrence. And that’s largely a testament to just how clean and clinical the world championship-contending drivers have been – something Verstappen and Hamilton beautifully displayed pre-Silverstone in a number of their tussles.
Misjudgements such as the car placement of Max Verstappen/Lewis Hamilton (delete based on your opinion) at Copse on the opening lap of the British GP don’t happen often, especially not when they’re racing another title rival.
Following Hamilton and his former Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg’s clash at the 2014 Belgian GP, similar calls of ‘there will be plenty more to come’ were made and yet we’d have to wait almost two years for their next major incident – and even that required Rosberg selecting an incorrect engine mode at the 2016 Spanish GP.
Hamilton also rarely crashed with his previous title sparring partner Sebastian Vettel nor Felipe Massa or Kimi Raikkonen before him.
That’s not to say this won’t happen again – the nature of Hamilton and Verstappen having the best cars on the grid and a clear margin over their respective team-mates makes them encountering each other on the track in future races inevitable – but don’t presume it will lead to more race-ending shunts.