THE ART OF DEFENSE

Lots will be written about Jeddah this week, but one thing’s for sure - we haven’t seen a championship battle this fraught with tension since the Senna/Prost era.


Sunday’s penultimate race of the 2021 calendar saw Lewis Hamilton emerge the victor, but that was only half the story. Perhaps the biggest talking point of the weekend was driving standards, as in where does one draw the line between aggression and bad sportsmanship? It’s a discussion that can be traced all the way back to the Red Bull Ring in 2019, when Max Verstappen muscled Charles Leclerc off the track to win the Austrian Grand Prix. Much was said at the time about whether Max’s aggression was over the limit. Perhaps the most telling response came some two months later from Charles himself when his robust defense of Lewis Hamilton prompted a warning from the stewards:


"Since Austria, it's clear we can go a bit further in the way we defend and overtake and just the aggressiveness of us drivers."

In short, the goalposts had been moved. Flash forward to last Sunday’s race and the ramifications of Verstappen’s aggression are still being felt, mostly by the man himself. The 2021 championship has been one of the most fiercely contested in years. A seven-time world champion up against the sport’s coming man. The stakes are high, the pressure immense. Verstappen has handled that pressure with poise beyond his years. He’s been fantastic in 2021, looking every inch the worthy champion. Perhaps that’s what makes Jeddah such a bitter pill to swallow. His clumsy defense into turn 1 on Lap 15 showcased an unwillingness to accept defeat that's become a hallmark of his drivng. What makes silly moves like that even more frustrating is that he immediately followed it up with a moment of brilliance. It’s not every day that Hamilton is made to look a fool, but Verstappen’s opportunistic dive down the inside to reclaim the lead on Lap 17 did just that.


That Max wasn’t able to pull a substantial gap on the Mercedes for the next 20 laps (despite being on the quicker tire) was a sign of things to come, and when Lewis duly pulled alongside on Lap 36 and attempted a move around the outside into turn 1, Verstappen once again forced his opponent off track in his desperation to maintain the lead.


As much as the Red Bull star might bemoan the subsequent penalties and question the state of modern F1, the rules are quite clear - going off track to maintain your position is not a legitimate defense. His punishment was just. His complaints, however, were not entirely without reason. Having gotten away with a similar move in Brazil without so much as a warning, he could be forgiven for wondering why he wasn’t given the same leeway in Jeddah. The difference here, of course, is that turn 1 is immediately followed by a sharp right-hander. Having been forced wide, Lewis made an attempt to resume the racing line as quickly as possible, a move that made Max’s streamlining of the corner look even more egregious. He’s a canny one, that Lewis…


What happened next will be debated for years to come. That Max brake-tested Lewis is fact, but exactly why he did it remains open to speculation. Was it calculated, or simply a rush of blood to the head? Another mystery yet to be solved is that of Lewis’ initial reluctance to pass him. According to Mercedes, they’d yet to tell their star driver that Max had been instructed to let him by, so why did he back off? According to the stewards, both drivers were trying to take advantage of the DRS line, but that only makes sense if both drivers were aware of Red Bull’s instructions…


Whatever the case, Max and Lewis now head to Abu Dhabi level on points, although not exactly on equal footing. If neither driver finishes the race, Max will be crowned champion by virtue of having more wins, leading some to suggest that his overly aggressive driving may yet be a sign of things to come. I doubt it’ll come to that, but if Mercedes carry their recent form into Yas Marina, there’s no telling what effect that kind of immense pressure can have on a driver’s psyche. Just ask Michael Schumacher.


Chaos aside, Jeddah has set the scene perfectly for what should be a fitting end to one of the best championship battles we’ve seen in years. There’s no question that both drivers are worthy of the title, and we can only hope that whoever emerges the victor, they do so in a sporting way.