Lewis Hamilton vs Max Verstappen: Who’s the best in F1 right now?
Hamilton and Verstappen have been the grid's standout performers over the past year but how close is F1's leading young star to its champion one? Mark Hughes ponders a fascinating question...
Last Updated: 09/07/19 6:13pm
"I've thought that for a little while," said Christian Horner post-race in Austria in response to being asked whether he thought his race winner Max Verstappen was now the best driver in F1.
It's a throwaway line that will be sure to stir the Lewis Hamilton fans, but it's certainly a contention that could be argued with some credibility.
While the sport's owners and much of its fanbase would love to see a Verstappen/Hamilton pairing at Mercedes to settle the question, it's probably not something that Mercedes would want to do - and which Red Bull will be doing everything in its power to prevent.
However churlish it may sound to compare a driver with six wins and no pole positions to one chasing a sixth world championship on 79 victories and 86 poles, that's just a historical summary, not necessarily current freeze-frame reality.
What Hamilton has over Verstappen is a fantastic depth of experience of pulling the best from himself and those around him in chasing world titles, something he admits he is now vastly better at than when he first arrived in F1, even though he was instantly successful. But would that difference be telling?
What Verstappen has over Hamilton is the energy of someone who has yet to achieve the level of success he knows he is capable of. They are both audacious performers when required but Hamilton does seem wary of his presence in close wheel-to-wheel situations, as he admitted in Austin last year after Verstappen had suggested he'd given him a lot of racing room in their dice. "Yeah, I never know with you," said Hamilton. "I didn't want a coming together…"
This was said from the perspective of Hamilton trying to clinch a championship and not having an unnecessary incident, but Verstappen does seem to be the one that has a special place in Hamilton's head.
When taking Sky's Johnny Herbert for a track ride at the start of that Austin weekend, Hamilton was asked to imagine how it would be with Verstappen and Vettel either side of him as you arrived for the braking zone at the end of the pit straight, and which way he would move.
It was probably significant that he chose to avoid the thrusting 13-years-younger-than-him Verstappen rather than Vettel.
Although he'd never say it, Hamilton feels he has Vettel's number if ever they get wheel-to-wheel. You do not get the sense that he has the same certainty with Verstappen and it could be fascinating to see how that might play out if Verstappen were regularly to be in a car as fast as Hamilton's.
Verstappen's rash of incidents in the first half of last year culminated with a crucial error in Monaco practice that meant he took no part in qualifying. Since that time, he has been pretty much blemish-free, as if that incident - and the harsh penalty it imposed of taking him out of the game on one of the few weekends over the years he had the fastest car - was the final piece of the jigsaw.
There have been occasions since - wheel-to-wheel with Sergio Perez in the early laps of Baku this year, for example - when he has backed out of non-critical situations that in the past he might have stuck with.
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When Verstappen was in the midst of that early-2018 'Mad Max' phase, there was a very telling moment in the Chinese Grand Prix as, on fresh tyres gifted by a late safety car, he rapidly caught the old-tyred Hamilton on the approach to the fast left-hander Turn Seven. This is a marginal passing place at best - and Verstappen's grip advantage was so big he would've been sure to have passed at an easier place later in the lap, probably into the hairpin.
Playing the only card he had, Hamilton turned into seven leaving a tempting gap for Verstappen around the outside. Max duly bit, went for it and - helped by Hamilton having an apparently sudden oversteer slide - was forced onto the run-off area to avoid contact. In that moment he lost the race to his closely-following team-mate Daniel Ricciardo.
But of perhaps more significance was how Hamilton had appeared to 'play' Verstappen, triggering an impetuosity he knew was there. Would the current-spec Verstappen have fallen for that? Doubtful.
Such is the dominance of machinery in F1 that the big question of 'who is the best?' can never be definitively answered in a frozen moment of time. Right now, the perception is that it's Hamilton. But how much of that is just the momentum of his past achievements, current machinery advantage and a continuing supremely high level of performance?
Is there someone, disguised by his car, actually operating at an even higher level? If there is, it can surely only be Verstappen.
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