MONZA, Italy — For the second time this year, an on-track battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen ended in a collision. Just four races on from their high-speed clash at Silverstone, the two championship contenders banged wheels in a bruising encounter that left both drivers out of the Italian Grand Prix and F1 grateful for its recent advances in safety.
The incident came about following a slow pit stop for Verstappen, which put the Red Bull driver’s position under threat from Hamilton. As Hamilton emerged from his own pit stop he just about had track position over Verstappen, who was hurtling down the pit straight in excess of 200mph. Under braking for the first part of Monza’s Rettifilo chicane, Hamilton squeezed his rival to the outside of the track before Verstappen responded in the next phase of the chicane by attempting to barge his way past on the inside of Turn 2.
The resulting squeeze saw Verstappen’s Red Bull hop over the kerbs on the inside of the second apex, make contact with Hamilton’s rear tyre and launch itself into the air and over the Mercedes. The right rear tyre of Verstappen’s car rolled over the cockpit of Hamilton’s, touching the 36-year-old’s helmet before being deflected away by the halo above his head.
Before walking away from the accident with barely a glance at his competitor, Verstappen said over team radio, “That’s what you get if you don’t leave any space, f—ing hell”.
Hamilton, whose car was still trapped under the rear of Verstappen’s Red Bull, failed in his attempt to reverse out from underneath it before clambering out and making his own way back to the pits on foot.
The incident meant neither driver scored points at the Italian Grand Prix, but left the title battle more highly charged than ever. With eight rounds to go, it is likely to be a defining moment of the 2021 season and one that could well be repeated before the championship is decided.
Why did Verstappen get a penalty?
The race stewards — F1’s rotating panel of referees — decided Verstappen was “predominantly to blame” for causing the collision and gave him a three-place grid penalty for the next race in Russia.
They noted that the Red Bull driver was “not at all alongside Car 44 [Hamilton] until significantly into the entry into Turn 1” and that Verstappen’s move between Turn 1 and 2 was “attempted too late for the driver of Car 33 [Verstappen] to have the right to racing room”.
Essentially, they said Verstappen was entitled to attempt a move around the outside of Turn 1 but never got his car far enough alongside to put the onus back on Hamilton to leave him space in Turn 2.
The stewards added: “While Car 44 could have steered further from the kerb to avoid the incident, the stewards determined that his position was reasonable and therefore find that the driver of Car 33 was predominantly to blame for the incident”.
The message was clear: given the relative positions of the two cars through the chicane — i.e. Verstappen never fully alongside Hamilton — the onus was on Verstappen to avoid the accident, not Hamilton.
Although the stewards were different to the ones who penalised Hamilton at Silverstone, the same use of the word “predominantly” featured in their decision. F1’s rulebook states that a driver should be penalised if the stewards believe they are wholly or predominantly to blame for a collision, meaning the stewards in Monza were always going to penalise one of the drivers if they felt it was anything other than a 50/50 racing incident.
That’s not to say Verstappen’s penalty was consistent with recent stewarding decisions (more on that below), but once the stewards decided Verstappen was in the wrong trying to pass Hamilton on the inside of Turn 2, a penalty had to follow.
Why a three-place grid penalty?
Given that Verstappen was out of the race as a result of the collision, the stewards could not issue an in-race time penalty as they had against Hamilton at Silverstone, so they issued a grid penalty for Russia instead. There is no wording in the regulations to directly convert in-race time penalties into grid penalties at the following event, but a grid penalty of any size is always an available penalty for the stewards to issue.
The last driver to receive a three-place grid penalty was George Russell for colliding with Carlos Sainz at the Silverstone sprint race, punting the Ferrari off the track. The situation was slightly different as Russell’s was during F1’s new sprint qualifying format and Verstappen’s was in a grand prix, but, confusingly, Russell was only given one superlicence penalty point for his incident whereas Verstappen was given two.
That may be because Verstappen’s was deemed more dangerous, although the stewards are only supposed to take into account the actions that led to the collision, and not the consequences, when issuing a penalty.
Comparisons with the penalty issued to Hamilton in Silverstone are inevitable, but Hamilton was still in the race after that incident and therefore received a 10-second in-race penalty and two superlicence points. The Mercedes driver ultimately overcame the time penalty to win the race, which was one of the reasons Red Bull used to argue it was not harsh enough, but it’s also conceivable that Verstappen overcomes his three-pace penalty in Sochi to win the race.
More likely, however, is that the grid penalty in Russia gives Red Bull an easier decision over when to fit a new power unit to Verstappen’s car and take the resulting grid penalty for exceeding his engine component quota for the year. After the Silverstone incident, Honda discovered damage to Verstappen’s engine which means he will need to go over his three-engine quota for the year and take a grid penalty as a result.
It is believed Red Bull was thinking of taking the penalty in Russia anyway because overtaking is possible around the Sochi Autodrom, and by doing so it will now also negate the penalty Verstappen received in Monza.
Could Verstappen have avoided the accident?
Verstappen claimed Hamilton “squeezed” him both on the entry to Turn 1 and on the approach to Turn 2, where he was forced over the kerbs and lost control.
The Red Bull driver said he thought Hamilton would give him more space at the apex and that, had his rival done so, Hamilton would have got a better exit out of the corner and most likely held position anyway.
“Of course, it was very unfortunate, what happened with the outcome,” Verstappen said. “When he came out of the pits, he realised that it was going to be very close, he realised that soon after the white line [dividing pit lane and track] was finished and under braking he moved to the left, already I had to run onto the green bit [at the side of the track].
“I still thought there was opportunity to fight. I went around the outside and then he kept slowly moving me out of space and, of course, I had to take the sausage kerb. Unfortunately, we touched.
“At the end of the day, it was very unfortunate because I don’t think it was necessary. If we kept racing he would’ve still got past me out of the corner because there’s more traction on the outside of Turn 2.”
Hamilton said he expected Verstappen to bail out of the move and the cut the chicane, in the same way he had done at the Roggia chicane on the first lap.
“I was ahead in Turn 1, I left enough room going into the corner but we barrelled similar speed and I was ahead going into Turn 2,” he said. “Ultimately he lost control, went over the kerb and into me, so I don’t feel at fault because I got hit from behind.
“There is a point where you have to concede that you aren’t going to make the corner and you go across [the run off]. Everyone has gone across the kerbs and I am not too sure why Max didn’t.”
There is no doubt Verstappen could have aborted the overtake and gone through the run off. Rewind less than 24 hours to the sprint race and a very similar incident was avoided by Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez as he attempted to pass Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin.
Much like Verstappen, Perez was attempting to overtake Stroll around the outside of Turn 1 and into Turn 2, and had his car much further alongside Stroll on the approach to Turn 1 than Verstappen achieved with Hamilton. However, when they reached Turn 2, Perez aborted the overtake and took to the run off — cutting the corner and avoiding a collision.
The move proved controversial as Perez continued to hold on to the position he gained by cutting the chicane for half a lap when he was finally told to give the position back by his team. He then completed a successful move the following lap at the first chicane to take the place.
The whole sequence of events was looked at by the stewards to ensure Perez gave the position up quickly enough and did not gain a lasting advantage, which they ultimately decided he had not.
While the two incidents are not carbon copies of each other, as Hamilton was rejoining from the pits before defending from Verstappen while Stroll and Perez were at full racing speed along the entire pit straight, it was proof that that the collision on Sunday could have easily been avoided if Verstappen chose to take to the run off.
Did Verstappen commit a ‘tactical foul’?
So should Verstappen have followed the example set by his teammate the day before and cut the chicane?
Undoubtedly it would have avoided a collision, but he would have likely either lost the position there and then or been forced to give the position back to Hamilton in the same way Perez was. We will probably never find out what went through Verstappen’s head, but it would be fascinating to know if he decided he would be better off risking a collision with Hamilton than losing the place by cutting the chicane.
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff went as far as suggesting Verstappen had committed a “tactical foul” in not backing out.
“In football, they call it a ‘tactical foul’,” Wolff said. “He probably knew that if Lewis stays ahead that is the race win possibly.”
He added: “We don’t want to have situations in the future where one loses a position and the only way of stopping the other one scoring is to take him out.”
Wolff’s opposite number at Red Bull, Christian Horner, played down the suggestion that Verstappen would thought about the consequences of losing the position (plus championship points) and acted accordingly.
“I don’t think he’s thinking that going through Turn 1 into Turn 2, he’s thinking how can he pass the car ahead,” Horner said. “I’d be disappointed if Toto suggested that, but for me it’s frustrating as we had a good car today and we wanted to beat them on track.
“We had a difficult pit stop, an issue with the stop so he was held much longer than he should be. So he should never have been anywhere near Lewis, then Lewis had an issue and he should have been well clear of Max, so it put them in a situation racing each other so they’re both going to go for it.”
Again, we may never know, but it’s interesting to pose the question of whether Verstappen would have made the same move against any driver other than Hamilton. There’s no doubt that by committing to Turn 2 without having his car ahead, Verstappen was risking a collision.
A collision with another driver at that corner — Ricciardo in the opening stint of the race, for example — would have been disastrous for his title chances as it would have taken him out of the race and given Hamilton a free run at victory. But against Hamilton, the same move either takes them both out, resulting in zero sum game, or, if Hamilton makes space, gives him a slight chance of holding the position.
What happens now?
In the aftermath of the Silverstone collision, Verstappen quickly tired of talking about the incident, saying the barrage of questions he received at the next round in Hungary was “ridiculous”. The focus of most of the questions was whether the pair would avoid a repeat of the collision the next time they fought over a position, and despite Verstappen’s reluctance to answer, in Monza we got the answer.
The two collisions, although very different in nature, underline how intense the title battle is. Both drivers have been lucky to walk away uninjured — Verstappen was taken to hospital for precautionary checks after Silverstone and Hamilton will seek the advice of specialist this week after experiencing neck pain on Sunday evening – and both were the result of neither driver being willing to give an inch.
The stakes were already high at the start of the year, with Verstappen going for his first world title in a competitive car and Hamilton chasing a record-breaking eighth title, but the two accidents have acted as a stark reminder that there is a lot more at stake in Formula One than championship glory.
“It was a big shock,” Hamilton said of Sunday’s accident. “I’ve been racing a long time and we are taking risks out there all the time, so I guess it’s only when you experience something like that that you get that real shock and you look at life and realise how fragile we are.”
Although the stewards can dangle the threat of penalties over the two drivers, no one outside of Verstappen and Hamilton can stop future collisions. It’s a case of an unstoppable force coming up against an immovable object, and even the smartest engineers in F1 will struggle to predict the outcome of that paradox.