There has never, ever been a better time to pay attention to Formula 1 than this weekend. The 2021 season ends with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday, and the amount of drama surrounding the event is unprecedented.
The two best drivers in the world, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, are tied at 369.5 points. Hamilton is vying for his 8th world championship, breaking his tie with Michael Schumacher and becoming the unparalleled greatest of all-time. Verstappen, perennially on the podium, but always playing runner up, is desperately trying to win his first title.
That alone would be enough drama to tune in, but there’s an added layer to close out 2021: Hamilton and Verstappen hate each other. Their beef is well known, with family members getting involved, trash talk flowing, and everything to drive for. It’s F1 at its best. So what caused so much ill-will, and what happens next?
We’re looking at the present, and future of racing
So much of what makes this rivalry great comes from what Hamilton and Verstappen represent.
Debuting in 2007, Lewis Hamilton became the first British driver since Damon Hill in 1996 to win an F1 Championship. Since his arrival on the scene it became abundantly clear we were seeing something special. Hamilton won his first championship in his second season, since then he’s added five more. Nobody has been as good as Hamilton since his debut 14 years ago, and there’s no sign of him stopping.
Hamilton is an iconoclast. A larger-than-life personality in a sport that so often praises and worships the reserved. Traditionally the sport’s biggest personalities aren’t its best drivers, with guys like Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel being two of the greatest of all time, but honestly, kind of boring guys. That’s not intended to be an insult, it’s just that the world of Formula 1 often rewards exacting, conservative tacticians over the brash.
Nothing about Hamilton’s career reflects that. Even after 14 years he still drives with a chip on his shoulder, and an uncompromising personality. Hamilton will win a race on a Sunday, then jetset to release a clothing line, before moving on to the next Grand Prix. It’s impossible to believe a driver with his resume could be “underrated,” but there’s an argument to be made that Hamilton’s personality, paired undeniable racism in some F1 circles has led to a disdain among some fans.
Max Verstappen is a driver who is the platonic ideal of what an old school fan appreciates. Debuting in 2015 as the youngest driver in history, his skill immediately became apparent driving for STR before making a switch to Red Bull, where he races today. Immediately after making the manufacturer switch Verstappen saw results, winning his first race in 2016.
Verstappen finished 5th in 2016, and has since followed that up with 3rd place finishes in the 2019 and 2020 championship, but truly broke out this season where he’s now tied for 1st place with Hamilton. In the event of a tie he’ll win on tie breaker, making this this season to lose.
The son of former F1 driver Jos Verstappen, Max is the the future of the sport. At 24 years old, it’s a question of when, not if he’ll take over Hamilton’s mantle. Verstappen is praised for his analytical approach to racing, his reserved personality, and for doing things “the right way,” which often serves as a dog whistle for pointing out the ways he’s not Lewis Hamilton. However, this presentation is often unfair, with Verstappen being an aggressive driver who’s not looking to make friends on the track.
That’s turned the 2021 F1 championship into a complete clash, the elder icon looking to make history, and the young wunderkind trying to assert himself. This has naturally led to friction, and while the pair have been competing against each other for the last six years, things have boiled over and there’s bad blood.
Why do Hamilton and Verstappen dislike each other?
It seems like a simple answer, but it’s true: They’ve been crashing into each other.
It’s no so much just the collisions between the drivers, but the reaction to it all after the fact. The back-and-forth wrecks began at Silverstone in the British Grand Prix, when Hamilton collided with Verstappen while trying to stop him getting an outside edge.
This infuriated Red Bull, who believed Hamilton should have received more than 10 second penalty. Hamilton’s bristled in the media that he he’d avoided collisions with Verstappen “one too many times,” and wasn’t going to let him get away with it.
Drama escalated in the Italian GP when this time Verstappen was at fault. Trying to pass Hamilton in the turn one chicane, Verstappen struck Hamilton’s car and ended up on top of the Mercedes driver.
A potentially horrifying accident resulted in the pair walking away, with race stewards saying the wreck was Verstappen’s fault, and assessing him with a penalty.
There was no love lost between the pair after these two wrecks, but this went to a whole other level last weekend at the Saudi Arabian GP. Another accident between the two resulted in a wholly bizarre scenario. Verstappen ran Hamilton off the track, and was quickly instructed by his crew to allow Hamilton to pass, fearing they might be hit with a penalty.
It’s unclear what Hamilton believed was happening, but instead of passing Verstappen, he plowed into the back of his car. Hamilton blamed Verstappen, Red Bull said they didn’t know why Hamilton didn’t just pass their car — and the post-race investigation found that Verstappen had slammed on his brakes just as Hamilton was approaching.
Both drivers would still make the podium, but everything has now boiled over. Hamilton and Verstappen hated each other and weren’t shy about discussing it.
How has the hatred played out?
We see two different approaches to this beef fitting with the two drivers’ personalities. Hamilton has addressed his issues head-on, saying that Verstappen too often drives too hard and it feels like the young driver “doesn’t think the rules apply to him.” In the past he’s referred to Verstappen as “crazy,” and been infuriated with his aggressiveness on the track.
Meanwhile, Verstappen has relied on others to do the fighting for him. Instead of narrowing his sight on Hamilton specifically, he’s criticized F1 as a whole for penalizing him for his role in wrecks, and letting Red Bull boss Christian Horner bristle about Hamilton in the media.
Even Jos Verstappen, Max’s dad, is getting involved.
It’s also helped that the back-end schedule to the F1 season has been brutal. With five races in six weeks there’s been no down time to let this situation cool off, and now both Hamilton and Verstappen are looking for reasons to snap at each other.
Things will be settled Sunday … for now
The culmination of the Formula 1 season in Abu Dhabi is tantamount to a big prize fight. Hamilton and Verstappen will finish 1st and 2nd this season, it’s just a question of who winds up where.
Forget limiting this to motorsports, this is now the most heated, drama-filled rivalry in all of sports and everything is left to race for. This is the definition of must-watch programming, and there’s no way Sunday’s GP will be boring.
The Au Dhabi GP will air live Sunday, December 12 at 8 a.m. ET on ESPN2.