At the 2021 British Grand Prix last weekend, Formula One championship leaders Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen came together on the ninth turn of the first lap. It was a simple bit of wheel-to-wheel contact and firm racing from the two title rivals that has exploded into a massive controversy with some calling for Lewis to get a race ban and Verstappen accusing Hamilton of poor sportsmanship. All of these theatrics and motorsport pearl-clutching is dumb and a shocking amount of people are buying into it. This was 100 percent a racing incident, nothing more. Here’s why.
We have to start this from the very beginning of the race. Hamilton started from position two, Verstappen started on pole. Hamilton managed to get a good launch from the standing start and began to hound Verstappen through the first turns of the race, getting alongside him cleanly and racing firmly with Verstapped responding in turn with some minor weaving and defense into corners.
Mercedes (Lewis Hamilton’s team) already had a start strategy of aggression, because they knew the Red Bull-Honda Max Verstappen represents would harvest hybrid energy during certain parts of the first lap where Hamilton could deploy energy and attempt overtakes, which was crucial to Hamilton winning the GP. If Hamilton couldn’t pass Verstappen on the first lap, his path to victory would be much harder, if not impossible.
Finally, they came onto the straightaway before Copse (turn nine), and Hamilton feinted Verstappen with a move to the outside, then aggressively moved inside to compromise Verstappen’s line into Copse. Verstappen defended very aggressively and closed Hamilton up against the inside pit wall before drifting back out to set up for the corner. Hamilton was fully alongside Verstappen and began to turn in, but bled off more speed than Verstappen in a seeming attempt to avoid contact, and Verstappen saw Hamilton, checked up for a split-second, then continued turning in like Hamilton wasn’t there.
Both drivers were well aware of each other as they committed to their lines, and Hamilton was still bleeding speed off as Verstappen swept across the front of Hamilton’s car to close the corner.
Then the contact happened. Verstappen’s rear right wheel hit Hamilton’s front left, Verstappen’s tire de-beaded, and he was sent backward across the track, sailed over the gravel, and hit the outside tire barriers with a 52-g impact. At the moment of impact, Hamilton’s Mercedes understeered sympathetically, widening his line beyond his already wide-of-the-apex arc, making his line look artificially ambitious. Verstappen’s onboard showed that he turned in, saw Hamilton, opened the wheel slightly before turning back into the turn, committing to his arc.
Christian Horner, and others in the Red Bull team, are adamant in claiming that “nobody puts a wheel inside at Copse”, which is, frankly, a load of garbage. It’s a racetrack — use it to pass. What bothered me most was Red Bull claiming that Hamilton was never alongside Verstappen, and that it was always Verstappen’s corner, which is also flat wrong. Horner says all of this in this video clip (which we can’t embed because F1) here.
Hamilton was very clearly alongside Verstappen before the turn and on the very first phase of turning in. After turn-in, Hamilton bled speed because he was constricted on the outside by Verstappen, and couldn’t naturally track out from the turn. But, Hamilton was going in a little too hot judging by the arc and attitude of his Mercedes before the impact. It’s crucial to note that the impact caused the Mercedes to understeer even more aggressively, and judging the post-impact arc of Hamilton’s car is irrelevant to the impact. Still, the Mercedes was not going to kiss the apex at the entry speed and line Hamilton chose, but he could have bled off a hair more speed.
Verstappen was also going in too hot and compromised. He turned in much later than Hamilton. I can’t get that great of a read on his true line through Copse, but it looks slightly wide of the apex indicating that he was intending to leave some room for Hamilton, but with the grip of the Red Bull car it’s possible that it would have apexed the corner as normal. I’d argue that Verstappen could have run wider and cut some speed, but both of these drivers were fighting firm, especially Verstappens’s defense.
If we watch the minute of footage before the impact here, we can see an aggressive defense from Verstappen, and Hamilton making every attempt to stick his nose in and compromise Verstappen’s line; classic fundamentals of racecraft. The battle was firm and fair, but I think it could have been aggravating for Verstappen because Hamilton was absolutely hounding him. He didn’t give Verstappen a moment to breathe for the entire eight corners leading up to Copse, applying massive pressure to Verstappen. We can see that exasperation peak with Verstappen closing Hamilton up onto the pit wall before Copse, with aggressive steering movements towards Hamilton to scare him out of the pass. Ultimately, both held their grit.
Most importantly, I see zero evidence that Hamilton tried to take Verstappen out. These are two drivers fighting for the world title, with much emotion and ego mixed into the aggression on track. Not to mention that these guys are strapped into 1000-horsepower sleds capable of 5 gs of cornering force. Things happen quickly in F1, and moves are rewarded or punished based on their success, not so much the intention. If someone takes a high-risk pass and pulls it off, we applaud it. But if someone takes a high-risk pass and fails, suddenly they’re deliberately crashing or can’t drive? That doesn’t seem right at all.
The impact itself wasn’t so bad, though Verstappen’s trip into the barrier was a rough one that definitely rang his bell. Everything subsequent to that became nasty, unreasonable, and even racist with fans trying to “all lives matter” Hamilton or just outright saying slurs because of his status as a black athlete.
The response from Red Bull is understandable if ridiculous. It has a few million dollars in damage to deal with now, and their driver was in the hospital for a check-up, which is certainly cause for distress. But to assert that Hamilton deserves a race ban for something so obviously an accident, a racing incident? That’s off-base.
Hell, that’s before Verstappen took to social media to call Hamilton “disrespectful” and “unsportsmanlike” for celebrating his home victory while Verstappen was in the hospital. I’m sorry to say Max but, you don’t like it when your aggression is reflected back to you? The attitude of asserting a place on track and expecting the other driver to always yield will always lead to this sort of incident. While I can’t apportion blame for the crash itself, I think Verstappen would have been wiser to run wide, lose the position, and use the superior pace of the Red Bull to attack later. Hamilton was clearly on a mission to poke at Verstappen and respond in the increasing psychological battle between the title contenders. In the past, Hamilton has yielded to Verstappen’s aggressive style, but now that the title is truly at stake, Hamilton is pulling no punches. It seems he’s claimed a psychological victory over Verstappen, showing him that he will not always yield, and he will defend his portion of track as cleanly and fairly as possible, even with minor contact.
Look back to Verstappen passing Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc in the 2019 Austrian GP. Verstappen absolutely barges into the inside of Leclerc’s car, misses the apex, punts him off the track with his front right wheel, and claims the overtake. How is the aggression and intention any different here than at Silverstone 2021?
We arrive at the double standard that I’m seeing. Verstappen is applauded for his aggression and his downright rude driving style. The same style that caused F1 to invoke a rule that prevents cars from weaving in braking zones. The same style we saw squeeze Hamilton before Copse.
Hamilton has very, very few incidents with other drivers, maintained a very clean record in wheel-to-wheel battles, and is known to yield when the long game calls for it, but can still execute race-winning passes on demand. This incident is a rare one for Hamilton, and I feel the outcry has been disproportionate to the actions of Hamilton. It begs the question (for me): if the cars were reversed, would this outcry have even happened?
I lean towards no. It’s nasty and impossible to ignore the racism around the outcry, with drivers, Red Bull Racing, and even F1 itself issuing statements to racist fans not tolerating this behavior. As of writing this, I’ve seen nothing from Verstappen.
Lewis Hamilton is one of the greatest sportsmen, athletes, or drivers that has ever been, and this should have been treated as a 100 percent racing incident from the start. He apologized for the incident and wished Verstappen well, but affirmed his actions as a racing driver. Instead, we have undue hate, racism, and massive fan bias turning something that was born of real, aggressive racing into something ridiculously sensationalized. I’m glad that Verstappen is okay after that heavy hit, but we’re forgetting the distinction between the actual on-track action and the consequences of those actions.
I echo the sentiments of veteran F1 journalist Mark Hughes: “A racing incident. 100%. It shouldn’t even be up for discussion.”