Lewis Hamilton has aimed a dig at title rival Max Verstappen as the pair prepare for the final two races of an epic 2021 season.
The two drivers have gone wheel to wheel throughout the campaign – quite literally on several occasions – with Hamilton storming to victory in the Qatar Grand Prix last weekend to cut the gap to the Dutchman to just eight points.
Speaking to BBC Sport, the seven-time world champion indicated that Verstappen’s unnecessarily aggressive on-track style has caused him to adopt a safety-first approach which he believes has worked well for him on the whole.
Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen have clashed several times during their 2021 title tussle
The 36-year-old trails the Dutchman by eight points with two races left after winning in Qatar
‘You just have to be very, very wary – more wary than ever before,’ he explained. ‘Rather than giving someone the benefit of the doubt, you have to know that’s what’s going to happen.
‘So you always have to be ready to avoid a collision at all costs, [even] if it means going wide, because you want to see the end of the race, right? If you’re stubborn and you hold your ground, you’re going to crash.
‘So that’s what I’ve just tried to do. I’ve tried to make sure I avoid the collision. And I think I’ve been pretty decent at it in most scenarios. You can’t always get it perfect.
‘I don’t mind being the one that… I am not too big or too successful to have to back out to fight another day. I know that is sometimes the route you have to take. You have to be the smarter one.
‘And sometimes you lose points in doing that, for sure, but it’s not just about me. I have 2,000 people behind me and through that selfish decision I could make – ‘No, I’m going to hold my ground’ and don’t finish – that costs all my team potential bonuses at the end of the year, all the hard work they have to do, the damage of the car. I am conscious of those things also.’
The tone for the season was set during the opening race in Bahrain when Hamilton overtook Verstappen to claim victory before the roles were reversed in Emilia-Romagna.
The first big incident of the season between the pair saw Verstappen crash out at Silverstone
Hamilton went on to win the Grand Prix as a hospitalised Verstapped lashed out on Twitter
Verstappen edged ahead in the title race after winning race five in Monaco and stretched his lead heading into July before the first major flashpoint with Hamilton as the younger man crashed out of Silverstone on the first lap and ended up in hospital as the pair jostled at Copse corner. Hamilton was served with a 10-second penalty following the restart before roaring back to take the chequered flag.
A furious Christian Horner said in the aftermath of the race that the crash had left Red Bull with £1.3million repair bill, while Verstappen slammed Hamilton for what he felt was ‘a dangerous move Lewis made on track’, branding his post-race celebrations as ‘disrespectful and unsportsmanlike behaviour’.
Mercedes then accused Red Bull of trying to ‘tarnish the name’ of Hamilton as the UK-based team of deliberately causing the crash. Hamilton ultimately avoided any further punishment.
Christian Horner said Hamilton had caused £1.3million worth of damage to Verstappen’s car
However, Hamilton avoided further punishment as the blew touch paper was well and truly lit
The narrowing of the lead lit the blue touch paper of a season that had threatened to go stale and Hamilton leapfrogged Verstappen in the drivers’ championship by staging a dramatic fightback to finish second in Mexico, taking advantage of chaos caused by team-mate Valtteri Bottas which damaged Verstappen’s car and led to him finishing ninth.
Successive victories for Verstappen in Hungarian and home event in Zandvoort saw the drivers’ championship change hands again before the pair got a little too close for comfort at Monza as Verstappen’s Red Bull flew off the ramped curve and onto Hamilton’s Mercedes, with only the Halo device protecting the Briton from catastrophic injuries.
Both men blamed the other for the incident which saw both their races come to an abrupt end.
Hamilton was then inches from tragedy in Monza as Verstappen’s car went over the top of him
The mud-slinging resumed as both men accused the other of being at fault over the incident
Verstappen was handed a three-place grid penalty for the Russian Grand Prix as Hamilton responded by winning in Sochi to make it 100 F1 victories – an unprecedented feat.
The win saw Hamilton climb back to top spot overall, but a disastrous pit-stop strategy seen saw that championship lead extinguished.
A highly charged moment in practice for the US Grand Prix saw Verstappen raise his middle finger at Hamilton and bounced back from missing out on pole by claiming victory in a thrilling contest before backing up that win with a dominant drive in Mexico.
Hamilton was then disqualified from qualifying in Brazil for breaching rear-wing regulations and worked his way up to 10th in the Sprint before producing one of the greatest drives of his career to snake his way through the field and overtake Verstappen, who escaped sanction after being accused by Mercedes of forcing his rival off the track.
Hamilton had one of his best-ever drives to win the Brazilian Grand Prix earlier this month
However, he felt Verstappen should have been punished for trying to push him off the track
With 12 points separating the two drivers heading into Qatar, Hamilton complained that it was ‘not clear’ what constituted dangerous driving in the eyes of the stewards after Verstappen’s Interlagos, a viewpoint the Dutchman unsurprisingly disagreed with.
George Russell – Hamilton’s team-mate next year – felt Verstappen was not punished purely because Hamilton won the race, something he felt was unfair, while Charles Leclerc said the ruling meant ‘overtaking on the outside is going to be very difficult’.
Hamilton’s win at the Losail International Circuit at the weekend means there are now just eight points between him and Verstappen, with just Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi still to come. The only thing that can be expected is a pulsating finale to a gripping season.