What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Formula 1 found out on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Silverstone, where the burgeoning rivalry between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton finally boiled over in a 51G crash.
The race was must-win for Hamilton, who arrived home with a 32-point disadvantage after a pair of beatings at the hands of Verstappen and his faster Red Bull Racing car in Austria.
Mercedes car updates have brought the teams back level, but Hamilton’s emphatic provisional pole on Friday was lost to an experimental weekend format that had pole decided by a 30-minute race on Saturday, which Verstappen won with a better start.
At the high-speed Silverstone, where equal cars find it difficult to follow, pole position and a first-lap lead would be invaluable.
Hamilton knew all this as he launched from second on Sunday, and the ferocity with which the pair battled off the line turned the atmosphere electric. The 140,000-strong crowd roared with delight as the two titans raced wheel to wheel, touching tyres down the Wellington straight.
But Hamilton was still behind as they exited Woodcote. Only Copse remained before the single-file Maggotts-Becketts complex. The time to move was now.
He slipstreamed up to Verstappen and dummied him on the outside before taking the inside line for the turn. Copse is taken at 290 kilometres per hour, and both drivers, now side by side, were committed to claiming it.
Hamilton was slightly wide of the apex. Verstappen closed the door. The pair collided.
Verstappen’s car shot off across the gravel and landed in the tyre barriers in 51G impact. He emerged winded, and a hospital visit cleared him of injury.
Hamilton continued fundamentally unscathed and went on to win the race, overcoming a time penalty for being predominantly though not wholly to blame. Opinion outside race control was mixed and apportioned responsibility more evenly.
It isn’t surprising the two came to blows, having come close to first-corner contact in earlier races. Hamilton was shoved off the road in Imola, and the Briton backed out of a crash in Barcelona to ultimately win the race on pure pace. On both occasions he played the long game, protecting his then title lead. But in Silverstone, his points deficit ballooning, he took his stand.
“When someone’s just too aggressive these things are bound to happen,” Hamilton said to British TV. “I will never back down from anyone, and I would not be bullied into being less aggressive.”
Verstappen hit back, calling Hamilton “dangerous”, while Red Bull Racing boss Christian Horner called it “an amateur’s mistake” and “desperate”.
Hamilton and Verstappen are uncompromising racers, their method of duelling to put a rival in a position to withdraw or risk a crash. Their fearsome reputations preceding them and their natural speed leaving little alternative, inevitably the other driver chooses to yield.
But in the intoxicating atmosphere of this crucial race neither driver was willing to play the subservient role. So one of them was forced to.
The crash is sure to change the dynamic of what had been hitherto a cordial battle, and you can guarantee that at their next on-track meeting both drivers will be only more determined not to back down.
And Verstappen might consider one other change. Unlike Hamilton in earlier races, the Dutchman chose not to consider his points advantage when forcing the issue in Silverstone and resultantly came away with a 24-point swing against him. Yielding would have cost him seven points at worst and another chance at the pit stops.
Verstappen has long contended he won’t change his campaign approach despite his first title tilt, but in coming off second best against the accomplished Hamilton, he may finally have cause to reconsider his route to the championship.
However we get there, the results are sure to be fascinating.