After 14 rounds of action, only five points and simmering tension separate Hamilton from championship leader Verstappen in the most enthralling title fight in a decade.
The final chapter of the European leg of the season ended with a bang at the Italian Grand Prix. Our title contenders, both attempting to recover from errors that dropped them into the midfield, came to blows at Monza’s first chicane that took both out of the race.
Verstappen tried to pass Hamilton around the outside of the right-hand first turn but couldn’t draw fully alongside. Hamilton took up the opportunity to close the door, squeezing the Dutchman onto the kerbs as the chicane turned left.
But rather than concede the corner and bail into the run-off zone, Verstappen doubled down.
Clattering over the high kerbs, his Red Bull Racing car careered into the Mercedes and launched up into the air, crunching down on Hamilton’s roll hoop and coming to rest on the front of the chassis.
Hamilton emerged with his helmet scuffed by Verstappen’s rear-right wheel, prevented from taking the full load only by the car’s halo.
“He just kept on pushing me wider and wider, and at one point there was nowhere to go,” Verstappen told the UK’s Sky Sports F1.
“You need two people to work together, right? So if you one guy is not willing to work, then what do you do? It’s still going to happen.”
Hamilton laid the blame at Verstappen’s feet.
“He didn’t want to give way today,” he said. “He knew that when he was going into [turn] two what was going to happen. He knew he was going over the kerbs. But he still did it.”
The stewards found Verstappen to be predominantly at fault, and the Dutchman will take a three-place grid penalty at this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix as punishment.
The crash was just the latest in a growing line of skirmishes between the two rivals, both of whom are famous for racing at the limit of the rules - win or crash, never yield.
That said, several times already this season - in Imola, Barcelona and even earlier in Monza, on lap one - Hamilton has been the driver to relent in a percentage play, an acknowledgement that some points are better than none, and in all three races he had a later opportunity to get back ahead of the Dutchman.
But twice Hamilton has opted to meet Verstappen on the limit. First it was in Silverstone, where the pair crashed, Verstappen retired and Hamilton won the race after serving a time penalty. The Briton been facing a ballooning points deficit and had nothing to lose in a possible crash, and he subsequently hauled himself back into contention.
Then came Monza, where Hamilton had a clear opportunity to retake the title and build a small buffer, but the crash ensured Verstappen left Italy with a slightly enhanced lead after gaining points from Saturday sprint qualifying.
In neither case was the crash deliberate on either driver’s part, but both examples are illustrative of the risk-reward scenario both face as the championship picture evolves and the points pool depletes with race by race on the way to the final in Abu Dhabi.
With cars and talent so closely matched, it’s inconceivable the pair won’t meet on track again. And when they do, how will the spectre of two season-defining crashes play a role? Can Hamilton afford to defer to Verstappen’s unstoppable force, and can Verstappen second-guess Hamilton as an immovable object?
Whatever they decide will be decisive in the outcome of this thrilling championship fight.