Lewis Hamilton was five years old the day Ayrton Senna took out Alain Prost at Suzuka turn one. He had already been bought his first radio-controlled car. Was he aware, back then, of the most famous rivalry in sport?
‘I remember watching during that period,’ Hamilton said. ‘At the time it was exciting. I had no idea about the rivalry, or whether it was good or bad for the sport.’
Those of a certain age will confirm: it was great for the sport. Films have been made, books written. The biggest complaint about modern motor racing is that for all the noise and fury, nothing often happens. There is one driver with the best car, and the rest can barely stay in touch.
Lewis Hamilton (left) and Max Verstappen (right) continue their feud in Hungary this weekend
Max Verstappen and Hamilton collided on the opening lap of a thrilling British Grand Prix
The Red Bull star was sent into the crash barriers at a force of 51G in the race this month
This year, it is different. Red Bull have the best car, but not by so much that there is no race. Mercedes have arguably the best driver: Hamilton, the last man to win a drivers’ championship in a car that did not also win the constructors’ prize.
Given that Hamilton and his rival Max Verstappen are no quarter given guys, and that they clashed, spectacularly, at Silverstone earlier this month and suddenly this dusty, baked circuit 14 miles north-east of Budapest is the focus of attention, and not just of petrol-heads.
Hamilton-Verstappen, the rematch, is capturing imaginations like no grand prix this season. Motorsport purists may sigh, but there truly is nothing like a grudge match. The drivers have little time for each other, the teams are at daggers drawn. Neither side drew a line under the feud on Thursday and those at the helm of F1 must be delighted.
Hamilton, too, it would seem. He wanted a race, he’s got a race. He wanted a rival, he’s got a rival. He wanted a challenge. Arguably, this could be the defining challenge of his champion years.
Hamilton went onto win the race and celebrated jubilantly in front of his home supporters
‘Today, I think just as I did growing up: wheel-to-wheel racing was always the best,’ he said. ‘The most exciting part is when you see close racing. We’re now seeing two teams incredibly close on performance and if there are more people watching then that tells you all you need to know.’
He made his comments as the same stewards who gave Hamilton a 10-second penalty in the previous race — a punishment Red Bull and Verstappen claim was weak — prepared to review the footage again. Last night they delivered their verdict, ruling out any further censure.
Time hasn’t healed this one. Verstappen is still seething that Hamilton and Mercedes were spraying champagne while the helicopter that took him to hospital was cooling its rotors.
Hamilton maintains he wouldn’t change a manoeuvre from the turn that sent Verstappen into a wall, nor the popping of corks.
‘It was my home grand prix and we worked incredibly hard for God knows how long to get a result like that,’ he said. ‘What a monumental moment it was for us to experience the home crowd being there for the first time. Last year, that was missed.
Verstappen insists that the celebrations from Hamilton and Mercedes were ‘disrespectful’
‘Emotions were running high and it wasn’t an intentional celebration, it was just the joy of seeing so many people celebrating together. I am not going to hide my emotions. It was an amazing feeling to see so many people.
‘As for the move, I’d do it exactly the same way again. In terms of how I reviewed it, I’ve analysed it and with all my experience — and over the years I’ve been through a lot — I wouldn’t change it.’
Verstappen was asked if the gloves were off. ‘I didn’t know the gloves were on,’ he deadpanned. ‘Who fights with gloves?’
Not these two, we hope. All eyes will be on the first bend come Sunday, and all bends thereafter when the pair are in touching distance. In reality, what happened at Silverstone was little more than a racing incident — what Senna did to Prost in 1990 was as subtle as the sacking of a quarterback, except at warp speed — yet bitterness remains.
The reason Christian Horner, Red Bull principal, was so underwhelmed with a 10-second penalty was that he initially wanted Hamilton not just stalled, but banned. Verstappen, too, was all wounded innocence and piety.
Ayrton Senna’s rivalry with team-mate Alain Prost culminated with notorious crash at Suzuka
Films have been made and books written about Senna (left) and Prost’s (right) huge rivalry
‘I didn’t do anything wrong,’ he insisted.
‘I defended hard, but not aggressively. Had I been aggressive I would have squeezed him into the inside wall.
‘When he committed the way he did, he was going to crash into me but I was on the outside and not expecting him to commit. If you slam into the rear of my car, there is not much I can do.
‘You can say I’m an aggressive driver but I don’t think I am. I know how to position my car and I haven’t had accidents running into people. I have no penalty points, that says quite a bit.
‘I am not happy with what happened but we keep fighting for the championship and racing in the right manner, at least from my side. I don’t think the penalty was correct, particularly when you take out your main rival.
‘We are miles ahead of the third-best team, 40, 50 seconds ahead in normal conditions. So a 10-second penalty doesn’t do anything. It should have been more severe.’
Verstappen and Hamilton renew their rivalry for the ages in Hungary this weekend
Round two starts on Friday. Not just in practice but when Horner and Toto Wolff of Mercedes speak for the first time since the stewards’ final verdict. The drivers have their say at the weekend.
Hamilton spoke of the racist messages he received in the Silverstone aftermath then the messages of support he received — Horner’s among them.
‘I felt for the first time that I didn’t stand alone in the sport,’ he said. That will change on Sunday. Man to man, wheel to wheel. Just as he likes it.