MARTIN SAMUEL: Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen rivalry is exactly what F1 needed

On the steps of the media building, Christian Horner and Toto Wolff passed. Red Bull’s team principal had just done his stint for the FIA, his equivalent at Mercedes was about to go in. It was, say onlookers, exquisitely awkward.

Horner did his best to brush off the events of recent weeks. ‘It’s nothing personal,’ he said, holding his arms up. ‘Nothing personal.’ Wolff smiled and acquiesced. 

Minutes after he would say he had spoken with Horner and enjoyed a ‘jovial’ meeting. He made no mention of the brevity, that it was an accidental brush past, over in seconds. 

The Red Bull boss launched an appeal which some are calling a personal attack on Hamilton

The tension between Toto Wolff and Christian Horner is at an all-time high after the British GP 

Verstappen (back) and Hamilton's collision at Silverstone has brought the talented pair's rivalry to life

Verstappen (back) and Hamilton’s collision at Silverstone has brought the talented pair’s rivalry to life 

And it is personal, whatever the protagonists may say. Mercedes versus Red Bull is personal. Wolff versus Horner is personal. Max Verstappen versus Lewis Hamilton? That’s personal, too.

There was a time, this season, when Verstappen tried to take the dismissiveness out of his conversations about the seven-time drivers’ champion. To give him more credit for his incredible achievements – the 99 race wins, the rewriting of the record books. That strategy has been ended by events at Silverstone. 

After their collision which put Verstappen out of the race – Hamilton received a ten-second penalty, won anyway, and Red Bull are still seething – it would appear the breakdown is irretrievable. Hamilton says he called Verstappen that night to clear the air and tell him the respect is still there. 

‘I don’t think it was reciprocated,’ he added. Verstappen’s previous take on Hamilton was that he was a seven-time champion only because he had the best car and a weak team-mate who let him have it all his own way. Take that as the default view from this point.

Red Bull lead the championship but Mercedes are throwing everything back to regain ground

Red Bull lead the championship but Mercedes are throwing everything back to regain ground 

And while Red Bull, the team, may state that their appeal to the FIA stewards this week did not take the form of a personal attack on Hamilton, those who have seen the evidence – not least Mercedes – are unconvinced. 

The most damning allegation was that Hamilton went into the Silverstone race with an aggressive state of mind and an understanding his actions were always going to lead to dangerous contact at turn nine. In other words: he knew what he was doing when he took Verstappen out.

To support their case, Red Bull included two other incidents in which Hamilton had made left front to rear right contact with their car: in the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix racing against Alexander Albon at turn ten, and the Austrian Grand Prix, again against Albon at turn three. 

On all three occasions, it was Red Bull that suffered the greater consequence. Red Bull expressed ‘deep concern’ at an ‘apparent trend’. The stewards threw out their appeal. 

Red Bull claimed they never expected to win anyway. They merely wanted to put down a marker for the next 13 races when Hamilton and Verstappen would be wheel to wheel, turn to turn, at the most fiercely contested championship in years.

What do the other teams make of it? As far as the most recent incident goes, not a lot. There was no great move to share Red Bull’s outrage at the start of this week, with most happy to view the crash as a racing incident rather than a deliberate, dangerous act of sabotage by Hamilton. That is not his reputation. 

Hamilton was met with boos at the Hungaroring but won't mind playing his role as the villain

Hamilton was met with boos at the Hungaroring but won’t mind playing his role as the villain

Red Bull have made much of Verstappen having no penalty points this season and, while that cannot be said of his rival, the number of penalty points collected by Hamilton over a lengthy career suggest he is also clean. 

There is a difference between aggressive and dangerous and both men can be more comfortably charged with the former rather than the latter. As for the sport, this rivalry is widely seen in positive terms. Not some of the by-products, racist abuse on social media, death threats. 

But, having taken the most extreme reactions away, the truth remains that elite competition is good for any sport. Nobody likes a procession and that was what F1 had become. Even at Mercedes there is acknowledgement that a challenge to their superiority was overdue.

It is a genuine enmity too. Drive To Survive on Netflix may mine the sport’s capacity for drama, human interest and spectacle, but there is nothing scripted or staged in this. Like all the best sporting rivalries, the edge is real. And it’s a local derby. 

The seven-time champion is going to have his work cut-out to fend off the young Dutchman

The seven-time champion is going to have his work cut-out to fend off the young Dutchman 

Mercedes and Red Bull may be German-Austrian brands, but the headquarters of their racing teams are separated by 20 miles, Brackley to Milton Keynes. A local bus, the X91, could do it. 

And behind the scenes, people that never make a headline but are integral to the team – technical staff, mainly – have been persuaded to switch allegiances, adding to the needle. Hamilton versus Verstappen is just the public face of it.

To quote Groucho Marx from Duck Soup, ‘Of course, you realise this means war.’ 

We hear boxers trash talk for weeks before a fight, then, once the money is in, they cuddle like old friends. Red Bull versus Mercedes, however, is no empty show. Between 2011 and 2017 Lionel Messi did not once put Cristiano Ronaldo in his three votes for world’s best footballer; and Ronaldo did not include Messi in his picks between 2010 and 2019. 

It made it so much better that their rivalry, the constant determination to match or overtake achievements, came from a genuine place. There was a time, too, when Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger sincerely did not like each other. 

Wenger had dismissed one of Ferguson’s comments with the barb ‘everyone thinks he has the prettiest wife at home’ and Ferguson took that as a personal insult. Likewise when Jose Mourinho called Wenger a ‘voyeur’ for talking about his club, Chelsea. 

The teams' bitter rivalry stems deeper than the track, with their factories even only miles apart

The teams’ bitter rivalry stems deeper than the track, with their factories even only miles apart 

The most keenly felt rivalry in today’s game – Manchester City and Liverpool – is undermined slightly by the fact the managers, Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola, have mutual respect. Yet even that seems to have been gradually slipping away between those duelling for supremacy in Hungary this week.

In the final round of qualifying, Hamilton deliberately slowed to back the field up meaning one of the Red Bull cars, that of Sergio Perez, missed the chequered flag and couldn’t attempt a final run. Verstappen only just made it. 

Hamilton emerged with a smirk, to boos from the Dutch Verstappen supporters present, revelling in his role as pantomime villain. On the team radio, Red Bull accused him of gamesmanship. Hamilton said he didn’t care and their reactions only fuelled him. 

All that mattered, obviously, was a 101st pole position, and Mercedes one and two. It is going to be like this all the way to Abu Dhabi on December 12. 

A hundred torts, a hundred slights, a hundred potential moments of collision. ‘Karma is coming,’ read one banner directed at Hamilton. 

Maybe, maybe not. Either way, for the rest of us, what’s not to like?

The rest of the season is going to see a gripping battle between the generation's top talents

The rest of the season is going to see a gripping battle between the generation’s top talents