When the lights go out in Bahrain for the first race of the new Formula One season next Sunday, the rolling thunder of engines will presage a mighty storm. For the reigning champion, Max Verstappen, and the seven-times title-winner Lewis Hamilton this is battle rejoined, a tempest to revel in. After the pair went head to head for 22 races last year, they will surely once more be at the centre of this championship fight.
Hamilton’s pedigree is well known: at 37 he is the most successful F1 driver of all time. On last season’s form the Briton is at the top of his game and this time motivated perhaps like never before after he and his Mercedes team felt they were robbed of the title in the controversyof last year’s final round in Abu Dhabi, when Verstappen secured the win and his first championship.
The Dutchman, in contrast, has the potential to rack up more titles but is in new territory defending his first. He is still only 24 but while he is entering his eighth F1 season the pressure he faces is intense, ratcheted up by the ferocity of the pair’s fight last year when they clashed repeatedly on track. It was gripping, both fighting their corner, both convinced of the righteousness of their cause. By the close Hamilton felt hard done by with the decisions in Abu Dhabi that cost him a record eighth title, but Verstappen has been adamant his performances across the season more than earned him the championship.
If Verstappen is feeling any pressure his demeanour does not betray it. He was relaxed and jovial at testing, as befits a driver for whom driving is all and who is most comfortable in a car.
“He has no interest in selling himself, he is a very private guy,” says his Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner. “He loves what he does, fame can often sit uncomfortably with him. He just wants to drive a car, he just wants to race.
“He is such an easy guy to work with, so passionate that 98% of the discussion is about racing. F1, esport, junior formulas, young drivers, karting, that’s his mojo.”
Last season, his first in a car genuinely able to compete for the title, Verstappen was Mr Mojo Risin’, doing what he loves with some emphatic drives that belied his tender years. For all the controversy over his uncompromising, aggressive style – and he does cross the line on occasion – he put in some outstanding performances to take him to a record 18 top-three finishes, including 10 wins and 10 poles. He was untouchable in Monaco, exceptional in France – taking an extra stop to come back nervelessly at Hamilton in the dying moments for victory – and defended brilliantly against his rival in Austin.
These were pressure moments and Verstappen had them in his pocket. They were allied to some extraordinary consistency, too. He was first or second in every race where he finished without damage. In Hungary, he finished ninth after his car took a battering in a first corner incident and he retired in Baku, Silverstone and Monza. The last of those was a salutary lesson of what that unnecessary aggression can cost.
Horner believes his strengths are often not given the credit they are due. He cites his resilience, self-belief and undeniable natural ability. Notably, however, he also highlights last year’s Dutch GP as exemplifying why he is confident his driver will remain cool this season. “In Zandvoort, the expectation was so high, I have never seen so much pressure on the grid,” he says. “He has the whole nation supporting him, 120,000 Dutch fans going mad, the royal family standing by the side of the car … But I remember as he put his helmet on, he was completely in his own zone. He had compartmentalised what he needed to do and detached himself from the emotion.”
Last season, relations between Mercedes and Red Bull and notably their team principals, Toto Wolff and Horner, grew increasingly ill-tempered. Even now, Horner is unable to resist another sideways elbow at Hamilton’s celebrations after his victories at Silverstone while pointing out his own driver’s steely focus. “Yes, Max was delighted to win his home race, but there was no crowdsurfing,” he says. “Of course he was happy but I travelled with him to the airport and it was all about the next race, the next and the next.”
The Red Bull director of motorsport, Dr Helmut Marko, has expressed fears that Verstappen’s career could be curtailed by more seasons of such relentless intensity. But Horner is confident his man can handle it. “He is only 24 but has real mental strength, particularly with all the games that were being played to try and unsettle him,” he says. “He is going up against a very seasoned campaigner, the most successful driver of all time who knows every trick in the book to get to his opponent. The way he dealt with that was exemplary.”
Max Verstappen and Christian Horner during testing in Bahrain. Photograph: Mark Thompson/Getty Images
Hamilton has always denied playing any games with his opponents and this year is bringing a wealth of experience and a desire to assert his authority over the young pretender in what would be the crowning achievement of a remarkable career. He and Mercedes are determined to do so after last year’s disappointment.
Anthony Davidson has known Hamilton since they were kids in karting. Now an analyst for Sky Sports’ coverage of F1, he is also at the heart of the Mercedes operation as one of their simulator drivers. He has observed an ominous resolve in Hamilton. “I see and hear a very determined Lewis Hamilton,” he says. “When he says: ‘If you think you have seen the best of me then wait until this year, you haven’t seen anything yet,’ that’s a big statement and not said in a flippant way. If I was going up against him I would be quite worried by that. I don’t take that attitude lightly at all. If he has the car this year then we are in for something special.”
The car will be crucial and with the new designs from new regulations, Bahrain will be the first real chance to see if one team has stolen an advantage. Ferrari’s form in testing was impressive and if they can join the fight with Red Bull and Mercedes, this season will be all the richer. Hamilton’s team, however, may yet have the edge with their radical design approach, a source of controversy before a wheel has turned in anger.
But if Verstappen must weather another fearsome deluge from Mercedes, there is no doubt at Red Bull he will only thrive in what F1 hopes will be the exhilaration and drama of a perfect storm. “What Max achieved in an era of total dominance by Mercedes that no one had been able to break until we managed it last year is right up there,” says Horner. “Given his youth and ability to improve, the best is yet to come.”