JONATHAN MCEVOY: Is it all getting to you Max? Verstappen puts middle finger up at title rival Lewis Hamilton as enormity of the challenge facing the Dutchman seems to be setting in
- Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton went wheel-to-wheel in Austin practice
- Verstappen was visibly annoyed at his title rival and swore at the Briton
- The Dutchman has the best chance of his career so far to topple Hamilton
- However, our F1 correspondent expects the seven-time champion to prevail
- The pair were involved in high-profile collisions at Silverstone and Monza
- Hamilton is used to friction after several run-ins with Nico Rosberg
It was one finger, just a brief flash of anger, but it told us more than a million pretend words about how the pressure building up in the most exciting championship fight of recent memory is alive and biting.
The moment came here in Austin on Friday when Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen went wheel-to-wheel along the main straight in practice.
Hamilton, driving aggressively, gave no quarter to his Dutch rival. Verstappen was unimpressed and called the seven-time world champion a ‘stupid idiot’ before flipping the middle digit in protest.
Max Verstappen called Lewis Hamilton a ‘stupid idiot’ after the title rivals clashed in practice
Verstappen (left) ran off the track coming off the final corner with Hamilton in close proximity
The duo then wrestled for position on the track heading down the main straight in practice
If not to be applauded, the instinct was understandable. This is the defining contest of Verstappen’s career as he finally finds himself in a position to prove his worth in a Red Bull that can match the previously unassailable Mercedes machine.
‘It won’t change my life,’ insists Verstappen of the championship result but, of course, it will.
Yes, at 24, he has years on his side, but then again Hamilton won his first title in his second season with McLaren in 2008 at the age of 23.
Verstappen is a brilliant driver, probably the fastest man on the track. He brings a raw edge, his elbows always out.
He never yields an inch no matter the consequences. Hamilton, still super-quick at 36, is the cleaner racer with natural instinct, honed by experience, dictating when to colonise asphalt and when to concede it.
For now, in my view, that puts Hamilton a smidgeon ahead of the pretender who would dethrone him.
Hamilton won his first world title in 2008 aged 23 – a year younger than Verstappen is now
Twice already this season the duelling pair have been involved in massive and potentially dangerous collisions.
First, at Silverstone, a 180mph smash that left Verstappen concussed. Hamilton was held accountable by the stewards.
At Monza, a relatively slower shunt but one which ended with Verstappen’s wheel only a fraction clear of Hamilton’s head.
The Briton won at Silverstone after a collision with Verstappen put the Dutchman in hospital
The ‘halo’ device saved the Briton from possible death in what was perhaps the most serious — if not the fastest — accident of his 15-year career.
‘When will Max learn?’ pondered commentator John Watson, observing what he considered to be the self-destructively kamikaze approach of the scintillating-to-watch Verstappen.
One distinguishing plus for Hamilton is that he has been in these battles before. He is a survivor, albeit a somewhat bruised one, of bitter rivalries.
Hamilton then escaped catastrophe when Verstappen went over the top of him at Monza
Although he has had it too much his own way in recent years — even he would agree with that — we must never forget how in his rookie season he went up against the might of the reigning double world champion Fernando Alonso, a truly brilliant racer, and matched him on points and defeated him on countback.
Then there was the acrimony between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. One was an indisputable F1 giant; the other screwed every last fibre of his being to undermine the genius of his adversary.
Rosberg triumphed in 2016 and walked away from the sport knowing that he could never again better Lewis while retaining his sanity.
Hamilton had several run-ins with Nico Rosberg as they vied for supremacy at Mercedes
That wake-up call spurred Hamilton on to the highest peaks he has conquered, certainly since he arrived like a starburst all those fabled years before. He married experience with the best of his gifts in the long summer of his talents.
Hamilton is perhaps now not quite the driver he was — only half a per cent down, admittedly, nothing more than very fractionally shopworn. Regardless, it remains my flickering belief that his greater calm at the wheel, helped by an improved Mercedes, will yet win the day.