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Opinion | Hamilton becomes champ. Verstappen will be

Max Verstappen, 21, is special. At the US Grand Prix a week ago, he wasn’t supposed to be racing Hamilton. He was ahead on track, but had a different tyre strategy and Red Bull team boss Christian Horner admitted as much as he spoke to the commentary team.

other sports Updated: Oct 31, 2018 09:28 IST
Raja Sen
Raja Sen
Hindustan Times
hamilton,f1,formila one
Lewis Hamilton (right) celebrates after winning his fifth drivers' title during the F1 Mexico Grand Prix.(AFP)

The Mexican Grand Prix started with Daniel Ricciardo on pole position in a Red Bull that finally looked faster than its rivals. As the red lights went out, Lewis Hamilton — who needed merely to finish in the top-7 to take the world championship — squeezed his Mercedes between the Red Bulls as if scalded, eager to seal the deal with a victory he didn’t need. Champions don’t wait their turn. He got his nose in front, then was surpassed by another driver not used to waiting.

Max Verstappen, 21, is special. At the US Grand Prix a week ago, he wasn’t supposed to be racing Hamilton. He was ahead on track, but had a different tyre strategy and Red Bull team boss Christian Horner admitted as much as he spoke to the commentary team.

“Our race isn’t with Lewis,” said Horner. “But we still have track position.” Knowing how obstinate and unyielding Verstappen can be about his racing line, the commentators asked whether Horner would relay that fact to Max, to keep a cool head and basically not bother with keeping Hamilton behind? There was audible pride in Horner’s reply: “Max does not let anyone past.”

Verstappen held his ground in America, denying Hamilton the world championship that week, and here in Mexico, he made his way past the British driver like a figure-skater playing with his food. In a race dictated by pit timing and tyre wear, Verstappen flew solo in front. At the end, after his woebegone teammate Ricciardo faced yet another retirement, Verstappen enquired if he should turn his engine “way down”. His tone is often coloured with the earned entitlement of those who keep themselves out of reach.

Speaking of the insurmountable, Lewis Hamilton now has five world championships. That is a staggering number, as many as Ayrton Senna and Fernando Alonso put together. He is driving better than ever. Hamilton deserves this 2018 title not only for the races he dominated, but more for the ones where he — against all odds — exercised incredible damage control, racking up podiums and vital points. Title rival Sebastian Vettel floundered with unforced errors, and here’s the brutal truth: despite having an occasionally faster Ferrari, he couldn’t drive home the advantage the way Hamilton would have. He didn’t bring the hammer down.

With Hamilton appearing bulletproof on track, the question of him equalling or even surpassing Michael Schumacher’s 7 titles is being asked, and it truly isn’t beyond reach. The last time we considered that tally under threat was five years ago, when Vettel won his fourth consecutive championship. In the next two years, Mercedes and Ferrari are likely to still hold a competitive advantage, and this is when both Hamilton and Vettel need to maximise their chances and wins. That 21-year-old won’t be waiting around for long.

(Raja Sen is a film critic and one of India’s longest-running Formula One columnists)

First Published: Oct 31, 2018 09:27 IST