Lewis Hamilton v Max Verstappen is a beautiful embodiment of Formula 1’s generational warfare
Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen may be at opposite ends of the age spectrum within Formula 1 but they will be going toe-to-toe for the title this season. It is part of a wider age battle as the old guard fight to fend off a rising generation of young stars within the sport. Pete Sharland looks at that battle and what it means for Formula 1 as a whole.
Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen greets Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton on the podium after the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit in the city of Sakhir on March 28, 2021
If you missed the opening race of the 2021 Formula 1 season, held in Bahrain rather than Australia, and just glanced at a headline you could be forgiven for rolling your eyes.
“Lewis Hamilton wins Formula 1 race” isn’t the sort of headline that sets most people’s pulses racing, such has been the dominance of the seven-time world champion over the past few years.
Even “Lewis Hamilton wins thrilling tactical battle” could be seen as an attempt by journalists to drum up interest in a sport that had become worryingly predictable, at least at the top. Yet to even watch the highlights back would warm the heart of even the most worn-down cynic of the pinnacle of racing.
Sunday’s race was fascinating from start to finish and the closing laps were a tense battle that is the embodiment of what racing should be about. At the very heart of it was Hamilton, winner of the last four drivers’ championships, and Max Verstappen, the pretender to the throne who is seen as the Brit’s principal challenger, if not the outright favourite.
Verstappen feels as if he’s been around forever but he’s still just 23, 13 years younger than Hamilton. In some ways it’s hardly surprising when you consider his various records as the youngest driver to start a race, win a race, secure points, secure a podium and set a fastest lap, but it still feels as if we are waiting for his coming of age season.
Maybe you could pick either of the last two seasons, when he established himself as the only true threat to Mercedes whilst stepping into a leadership role with Daniel Ricciardo moving on. But maybe it’s this season. It seems strange to say perhaps, after an opening race that many consider Red Bull to having thrown away, but allowing Hamilton to pass at the end was something new for Verstappen. Former F1 driver and Sky Sports pundit Anthony Davidson said as much after the race.
“The old Verstappen wouldn’t have done what he did,” Davidson said.
“Hats off to him. This is a new Max that we’re seeing. Very mature, a great racer like we know, and he’s super quick.
“I think that level of maturity that he did there, was very poignant for the rest of the championship.”
Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes W12 leads Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing RB16B Honda on track during the F1 Grand Prix of Bahrain at Bahrain International Circuit
Image credit: Getty Images
In the past Verstappen, and the Red Bull organisation as a whole, seemed to love playing up to the underdog mentality, very often going into a mood that was equal parts Scrappy-Doo mixed with sullen teenager. At times it was charming, and somewhat refreshing, but by the end it had become slightly irksome. This new, more level-headed outfit, is just what F1 needed.
There isn’t much more to be said about Hamilton and Mercedes. They know this season will be one of the toughest battles they’ve had in years, and one suspects that deep down Hamilton will relish that.
What is fascinating is the developing generational battle within the paddock. Of the 20 drivers this season 11 are aged 25 or younger, eight of those are 23 or below. Seven of the other nine are aged 31 or older which leaves just two (Carlos Sainz Jr at 26 and Antonio Giovinazzi at 27) sitting in the middle zone. It’s a lot more than just Hamilton against Verstappen.
Even if you take those two in a class of their own the best of the rest offers a similar look at the age battle. Here are the ages of the racers who finished between third and tenth on Sunday: 31, 21, 31, 23, 31, 26, 20, 22. There are plenty of these drivers who started when a lot of current fans were still children or teenagers. Now they’re falling in love with the likes of Yuki Tsunoda and Lando Norris, and perhaps their children are doing the same.
Max Verstappen e Lewis Hamilton si scambiano i complimenti dopo il GP del Bahrain
Image credit: Getty Images
It’s not too dissimilar to football or the NFL where you see legends of the sport (such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Tom Brady) duelling with young upstarts (think Erling Haaland, Kylian Mbappe and Patrick Mahomes).
There’s an interesting trend across most of sport as a whole that is simultaneously seeing the old guard carry on for longer whilst introducing new blood at a younger age than ever before. You can see that in F1 with four former world champions on the grid alongside a host of fresh-faced youngsters eagerly taking their chance to battle their heroes. (Insert your own Nikita Mazepin crashing into his heroes joke here).
Although it is very much a sport driven by star power the beauty of F1 is that very often fans will fall in love with those in the middle of the pack, and will celebrate their achievements as if they’ve won a race. The F1 community at large has already embraced Tsunoda and ask any fan who their favourite drivers are and chances are they will name at least one who doesn’t have a realistic chance of challenging for race victories. In an individual sport it’s very easy to become attached to some of the 20 or so personalities that make up a grid each year.
The fact that if you asked that question today so many of these drivers picked will be in their early 20s is terrific news for the sport, it shows that it is in good health, both in terms of on and off the field product. At some stage the older generation will step aside, even with Kimi Raikkonen 41 and Fernando Alonso 39, and all things being well we could suddenly be set up with Verstappen and a group of three or four drivers poised for five or six years of epic title battles.
If a genuine title race can be built upon the foundations of fascinating and captivating midfield battles, then F1 fans are in for a real treat. That already looks to be the case this season after a thrilling opening race. The only misstep the organisers have made is putting an extra week between the first two races, we now eagerly wait for Italy on April 18.