Red Bull teammates Max Verstappen (left) and Sergio Perez
As the floor of Max Verstappen’s Red Bull perched itself along the halo of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes car at Monza three Formula One races ago, another tantalising opportunity to watch two of the fastest men to ever compete in the top tier of motorsport was lost.
Verstappen saw Hamilton exiting the pit lane in Italy and decided that, by hook or by crook, Hamilton was not leaving the Prima Variante chicane ahead of him. The two came together as they attempted to round the first turn, and the Dutchman’s RB16 was launched up off the sausage kerb and onto the top of the Stevenage native’s W11.
Of course, the drama of such an explosive moment was more than enough to keep audiences entertained, as a livid Verstappen stormed back to the pits and Daniel Ricciardo went on to unexpectedly win the race in his McLaren.
That was the second time that the two drivers’ championship contenders had made contact in spectacular fashion, after Hamilton put a wheel up the inside of Verstappen’s car on entry to Copse corner at Silverstone in July and sent the 24-year-old spearing off through the gravel and into the barrier.
On both occasions, a scintillating on-track battle between the two was promised, before being expunged by rambunctiousness at the very first moment of peril.
This is one of the most riveting F1 title fights of the 21st century, of that there is no doubt. Hamilton and Verstappen have traded small margins at the top of the standings throughout the campaign, with neither driver leading by more than eight points since before the summer break.
Hamilton is statistically the greatest driver of all-time and Verstappen has the kind of terrifying natural pace and fearlessness that only the very best possess. Some of the outstanding performances each has delivered this season, Hamilton in Portugal and Verstappen in Styria particularly, are clear demonstrations that both are operating at the top of their game and are pushing each other to reach new heights.
But, until they prove they can fight wheel-to-wheel on track without taking one another out the race, there is no doubt whatsoever that this title battle is making a key ingredient, no matter how impressive both drivers may be as individuals.
And that’s where Sergio Perez comes in.
Perez leading Lewis Hamilton at the Turkish GP
At the Turkish Grand Prix on Sunday afternoon, Verstappen’s Mexican teammate was tasked with keeping a rampaging Hamilton behind, after the latter had started in a lowly 11th position on the grid thanks to a change of Internal Combustion Engine. What unfurled when Hamilton arrived at the back of Perez’s gearbox on lap 34 was nothing short of sensational.
As both drivers exited the crest of Turn 11, Hamilton drifted to the outside line and put his Mercedes directly alongside Perez’s Red Bull on entry to the braking zone. The two were locked together as they rounded the slow left-hander of Turn 12, before Hamilton had the advantage of the inside line on the way into 13. The sharper braking zone here saw the two come desperately close to making contact on exit, as Perez was forced to dive across the white line of the pit lane to maintain position.
When they rounded the final corner onto the pit straight, both cars were dead level, with Perez on the outside and Hamilton on the inside with seemingly more traction. The Mercedes car was completely ahead of the Red Bull as they reached Turn 1, but Perez placed his machinery impeccably and found the drive out of the corner to keep Hamilton at bay.
It was one of the most thrilling and hotly-contested on-track battles the sport has seen in recent seasons. Whenever one driver looked to have the advantage, the other hung it around the outside, kept their patience and composure, and fought straight back as fiercely as possible.
Ultimately Perez dropped behind Hamilton when he pitted for fresh intermediate tyres, before overtaking the Briton again once the latter did the same.
What was so staggering when watching the multitude of gorgeous replays of their battle was that Hamilton and Verstappen have never come close to delivering anything on this level of direct competition. Instead, whenever those two are squabbling on track it inevitably ends in chaos before it has really started.
Clearly Perez is not as a quick, or fundamentally as good, a driver as Verstappen. And the suggestion here is not that the Mexican is a better wheel-to-wheel racer than the two championship contenders, either. But at Istanbul Park he demonstrated the kind of determination, skill, and most crucially, composure, to fight ferociously but fairly.
Hamilton and Verstappen need one enormous but smartly-managed scrap like this before the end of the season, when both are pushing themselves and their machinery to their absolute limit, if we are to truly label this one of the greatest rivalries the sport has ever seen.
If the stunning bout between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder in Las Vegas twelve hours before lights out in Turkey taught us anything about sport, it is that the fight for glory needs skill and danger, true, but it also needs a cool head in key moments and the ability to take punishment from your opponent for a while before picking your moments intelligently.
Verstappen and Hamilton are two heavyweight Formula One contenders worthy of the title. Now they must demonstrate they can box clever rather than launching haymakers as soon as the other arrives on the scene.
Sergio Perez was the perfect trainer for both drivers in Istanbul.
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