An enthralling duel between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen at the season-opener hints at the controversy and drama that lies ahead. Verstappen starts on pole at the Bahrain International Circuit and a gripping strategic fight ensues in which Hamilton and Mercedes take the lead. Later running fresher tyres, Red Bull’s man hits back to pass Hamilton on lap 53, but leaves the track in doing so, and is immediately obliged to give the place back. Hamilton nurses his older tyres home, clinging on to win what he calls a “great battle”.
The scale of Hamilton’s task in defending his world title becomes clear at Imola when Verstappen bullies his way into the lead, from third on the grid with the Briton on pole, at the start of a rain-soaked race in Italy. Verstappen capitalises on his boldness to win the season’s second race. Hamilton later spins off and drops to sixth but has a stroke of fortune when a red flag allows him to repair and regroup – and fights back for a gutsy, potentially crucial second.
Another aggressive, high-risk overtaking manoeuvre from Verstappen at the start presents Hamilton with a choice: hold his ground and almost certainly crash out along with his rival, or cede the racing line and live to fight another lap. The Mercedes man opts for the more measured approach, seeing his pole-position advantage disappear within seconds. But Mercedes’s daring two-stop strategy allied to Hamilton’s relentless skill eventually pays off handsomely. He recovers from 21 seconds down to beat Verstappen into second place at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.
Great Britain: July
A significant blow struck by Hamilton at Silverstone, and a day that attitudes harden between the drivers and teams. The pair clash on the first lap and Verstappen is sent careering into the barriers at 180mph after Hamilton tries to force his way down the inside at Copse, touching his adversary’s right rear wheel. Verstappen is taken to hospital for checks while Hamilton makes light of a 10-second penalty to triumph. The Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner, accuses the Briton of “dirty driving”.
Hamilton emerges from a pitstop fractionally ahead of Verstappen and fights for position into a chicane at Monza. Verstappen refuses to yield and in the resulting crash the Dutchman’s car hops into the air and lands on the Mercedes. “That’s what you get when you don’t leave enough space,” Verstappen claims on the radio seconds after the crash. It seems the halo saves Hamilton’s life, and he later expresses disappointment that Verstappen fails to check if he is OK. “It was good fun until now,” says Toto Wolff of Mercedes.
Saudi Arabia: December
The overriding memory of an insanely chaotic grand prix at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit will be the collision on lap 38, Hamilton’s Mercedes clipping the back of Verstappen’s Red Bull. Verstappen is instructed to let Hamilton pass following the pair’s coming-together two laps earlier with Hamilton pushing for the lead. The Dutchman slows dramatically and Hamilton, failing to realise his rival’s intention, cannot avoid a relatively minor collision. “He brake-tested me!” Hamilton yells on team radio, as a furious row breaks out in the pit lane.