So, what if Lewis Hamilton had chased Max Verstappen instead of the other way around in Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix?
I have a clear answer, albeit only suspect. The seven-time world champion is said to have held the victory by passing the other car and claiming the victory.
Hamilton won, of course, despite the advance from behind – with an advantage of cigarette paper in the race craft, that’s a difference that makes him, as I wrote on Monday, by a small margin, and based on the evidence of the moment, the best driver in the world.
Lewis Hamilton made the perfect statement in Bahrain when he bid for an eighth world title
Max Verstappen threw everything he had to Hamilton, but the Mercedes star held his ground
Hamilton has developed his natural skills as an all-out racer, a boxer, to combine with an appreciation for how best to preserve his tires for maximum benefit. His all-round ability to read a race and play the long game is something he’s honed since losing the world title to Nico Rosberg in 2016. He has now become the complete performer.
If his downright pace slows – he’s 36 years old – it’s offset by his general knowledge of the equipment he’s in.
He has tempered the slight impetuosity he showed in his early years, the desire to bring out his natural talent through sheer bravado. He has found a way that allows him to perfectly balance the needs of the minute and the longer demands of a maturing race.
Verstappen, perhaps more visceral and untrained, relies more on gut instinct, on emphatically making his mark, bringing his point forward when he sees the first chance, sometimes at his expense.
At the age of 23 he is a newcomer in the title fight. He has shown his obvious class, but is less skilled in the demands of the front of the field combat and tests his abilities in white heat.
He thinks he has all the answers – and certainly most of them – but he can’t be sure he owns them all. He will find out with the rest of us.
Hamilton, on the other hand, was already thrown into the top in his first season, in 2007, when in a competitive McLaren he was lined up with teammate Fernando Alonso and the then strong Ferraris.
The Briton’s experience paid off on Sunday when Verstappen wanted to catch up with him at death
Hamilton has been battle-hardened and, even as he routinely voices his concerns on the radio to his racing engineer Peter Bonnington, he stays calm by working through the race in his own mind, just like Alonso, the only other man on the grid that may have been mentioned in the same breath with him and Verstappen.
His calmness showed on Sunday. He drove very reasonably, very neatly. He always does, just like another world champion Kimi Raikkonen. With Hamilton, you don’t have to worry about a crazy smash around every corner.
That was seen when he and Verstappen came in a close-dance around turn four. Indeed, Hamilton suggested that Turn One is where he would have made the decisive move, rather than Turn Four. There was, to be harsh, a do-or-die element to the Red Bull driver’s hooray.
Verstappen also failed on the last three laps to put himself in a position to take on Hamilton again. Had the tables turned, an adult Lewis would have refocused and launched a second assault on the man in front.
Hamilton’s rivalry with Verstappen will delight Formula 1 fans throughout the season
Their motivations are the same but different. Both men have a tremendous drive to win. Verstappen wants to prove that he is the material world champion – he is. Always validated only in his own mind by winning week after week, Hamilton feels this urge unabated despite 96 wins.
It’s what he lives for.
He’s further fueled by the need to answer the suggestion that he’s a son of fortune driving what has been until Red Bull took a possible lead this season, the all-dominant Mercedes.
George Russell intervening and so proficiently releasing himself in Bahrain last December, when Hamilton was out with Covid-19, is an added direct boost.
Both title rivals are stimulated by the battle between them – a test of masculinity in the only language they know.
They are happy to fight. The result will play a big part in defining both.
Formula 1’s leading duo is energized by this season’s infighting