OLIVER HOLT: Hamilton and Verstappen’s battle for the title has breathed new life into F1 but a finale like this carries with it the potential for disaster – like Schumacher in 94, the Dutchman will be well aware that if neither finishes, the trophy is his
- Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen head into the finale level on points
- The Dutchman got the upper hand over his rival by taking pole position
- Bitter struggles like Hamilton and Verstappen have potential for disaster
- Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill collided in the final race back in 1994
- Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna were twice involved in title-deciding clashes
- Lewis Hamilton could surpass Schumacher with his eighth title on Sunday
There is a corner in a quiet part of Adelaide at the junction of East Terrace and Flinders Street that I always made a point of visiting when I was in the city for the Ashes.
It sits on the edge of Victoria Park and it would feel like an unremarkable feature of a serene, sleepy residential neighbourhood were it not for the knowledge of what happened there on November 13, 1994.
Adelaide staged the Australian Grand Prix in those days and, at the end of a traumatic season dominated by the death of Ayrton Senna at Imola in May, Michael Schumacher had gone into the race on the street circuit leading the struggle for the drivers’ title by a point from Damon Hill. On the 36th lap, Schumacher crashed at the corner of East Terrace and Flinders Street.
The F1 title race between Max Verstappen (L) and Lewis Hamilton (R) will conclude on Sunday
Hill had been whittling away at Schumacher’s lead and saw him hit the wall and then drive back on to the track. He did not know how badly Schumacher’s Benetton was damaged.
He tried to pass Schumacher but Schumacher drove into him and the Benetton leapt into the air and almost flipped before it bounced back to the ground and nestled in a tyre barrier. Hill nursed his Williams back to the pits but it could not be repaired.
The stewards judged it was a ‘racing incident’. Schumacher, to much dismay, was exonerated from blame and won the title. There were more calls for him to be punished but they went unheeded.
It was the first of his seven driver’s championships, a record which may be overtaken if Lewis Hamilton holds off Max Verstappen in Abu Dhabi to win his eighth title and become the most decorated F1 driver of all time.
And so more history will be written on Sunday and part of the Yas Marina Circuit will be celebrated for what happened there. Maybe it will be the finish line, immortalised as the place where Hamilton took the chequered flag to be anointed F1’s king. Maybe it will be the site of a collision, as it was in Adelaide, the site of a melodrama that would fit the narrative of this memorable season.
Last race battles have a history of title-deciding clashes such as Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill in 1994
Hill was closing in on Schumacher before he was taken out in Adelaide 27 years ago
Max Verstappen took the upper hand on Saturday by qualifying pole for the season finale
Hamilton could make history at Abu Dhabi if he wins a record-breaking eighth championship
This will not be the first time that title contenders have gone into the final race level on points. It last happened in 1974 when Clay Regazzoni and Emerson Fittipaldi arrived at the US GP at Watkins Glen on exactly the same total. Regazzoni put Fittipaldi on the grass at 170mph on the back straight on the first lap but Fittipaldi did not lift off the accelerator and went on to win his second title.
These things rarely end quietly. Bitter struggles like the one between Hamilton and Verstappen carry with them the potential for disaster. When so much is at stake, an entire season resting on one climactic race, some drivers are willing to do anything to win. And Verstappen knows, as Schumacher did, that if neither he nor Hamilton finishes in Abu Dhabi, then Verstappen will win the title.
We have been here before. Most famously, Ayrton Senna was twice involved in title-deciding clashes with his bitter rival Alain Prost close to the end of the 1989 and 1990 seasons.
Bitter struggles have potential for disaster like Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost’s collisions in 1989 and 1990
Verstappen and Hamilton have had a number of incidents during their epic battle for the title
‘Oh my goodness, this is fantastic,’ Murray Walker yelled breathlessly as he commentated on the first of the incidents, not knowing whether to be thrilled or horrified. ‘This is what we were fearing might happen.’
In the second clash, after Senna smashed into the side of the Frenchman at high speed soon after the start of the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, Prost articulated the difference between the two men. ‘I am not ready to fight against irresponsible people who are not afraid to die,’ he said.
For many F1 fans, nothing will ever match the intensity of the enmity between Prost and Senna but the duel between Hamilton and Verstappen this season has breathed fresh life into Formula One after so many years of clear dominance from Hamilton’s Mercedes team.
It had raced into a cul-de-sac of public apathy. Now it is front and centre in the sporting mind again. And if the rivalry between the two men does not yet have quite the same hinterland as the Jim Clark-Graham Hill, Senna-Prost, Nelson Piquet-Nigel Mansell, James Hunt-Niki Lauda and Schumacher-Hill struggles, there is less room for argument about Hamilton’s place in the pantheon of the sport.
Hamilton currently shares the record for titles with Schumacher on seven going into the race
Whether he adds an unprecedented eighth driver’s title to his collection or not, the numbers already say that Hamilton is the greatest grand prix driver there has ever been. He has more race victories and more pole positions than any other racer, he is thrilling to watch, a risk-taker, a trailblazer and a master of whatever conditions are thrown at him.
Those who say Hamilton owes his dominance to the brilliant engineers and designers who built his Mercedes chassis and its engine have a point but not much of one. Hamilton won a title in a McLaren, too, remember. Not only that, in his debut season, he outperformed his team-mate, Fernando Alonso, a man who was already a double world champion.
Hamilton has benefited from being in the best car for many of the past seasons of his reign but that is often the way in F1. Schumacher won most of his titles in a dominant Ferrari, Senna’s pre-eminence coincided with McLaren’s golden years. Part of the equation in Formula One is to find a way to get into the best car.
Hamilton has enjoyed much success at the dominant Mercedes but also won a title in a McLaren
Hamilton’s gambles have also paid off unlike drivers like four-time champion Sebastian Vettel (left)
You have to play the politics as well as drive the car. Hamilton gambled when he left McLaren for Mercedes. The gamble paid off. His judgement was better than, say, that of Sebastian Vettel, whose career withered because of bad choices. It is all part of the package.
Whether history, as well as his numbers, will judge Hamilton as the G.O.A.T. is another matter. Win or lose, there will never be a definitive answer to that debate just as there can never be a definitive answer to whether Pele is greater than Lionel Messi or Roger Federer greater than Rod Laver. Most of the numbers favour Hamilton but then Juan Manuel Fangio, who won five titles in the Fifties, won a higher percentage of races started than Hamilton.
Hamilton is indisputably the greatest driver of his generation but is he greater than Fangio or Clark or Senna or Schumacher? As he hurtles into Sunday’s thrilling denouement, with all the potential for danger, confrontation and collision that it brings, it is enough to know that he walks in the same exalted company.
ENGLAND FANS NEVER LEARN
I told myself late on Friday night I’d just stay up long enough to watch Joe Root get his hundred.
Two hours and eight England wickets later, and after watching some of the game from a camera placed at third man, I called it a day. England cricket fans — we never learn.
England suffered a nine-wicket defeat after losing their last eight wickets for just 77 runs
MIDFIELD SHOULD BE THE PRIORITY FOR RANGNICK
Ralf Rangnick, who has made such a positive impression since joining Manchester United, is said to have identified midfield, in particular, as an area in need of strengthening.
Welcome news for United fans, who have been saying much the same thing for some time now.
Everyone else seemed to recognise it as a priority before the United board, something that has become a well-worn theme at Old Trafford.
Jude Bellingham or Declan Rice, not another superannuated striker, should be top of the shopping list.
Jude Bellingham or Declan Rice should be top of Manchester United’s summer shopping list
RACING MUST NOW GROW UP
Many jockeys appear to feel that Robbie Dunne has been victimised after he was banned from riding for 18 months for a sustained campaign of bullying of Bryony Frost. Their loyalty to Dunne is misplaced.
Frost may have enemies in the weighing room. Some may object to her riding style. Some may resent her media profile.
But the treatment she received at the hands of Dunne, the bullying and the abuse, should not have been tolerated.
That no one stood up for her and that she is now being shunned is a sad and dispiriting comment on attitudes in a sporting culture that needs to grow up.
The treatment that jockey Bryony Frost received should not have been tolerated
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