OPINION: Here we go again

Something tells me this won’t be the last time I’m writing a post-race column that is discussing a collision between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. Stating the obvious, I know.

But I’m glad I’m writing about Verstappen’s penalty and its impact on the Italian Grand Prix and consequently the title battle, rather than something much, much more serious.

Without the Halo, we definitely could be discussing the serious injury or worse of the most successful Formula 1 driver of all time. In an innocuous collision, Hamilton still took a glancing blow to his head from Verstappen’s right rear wheel. The Halo kept the majority of the weight off of Hamilton, but who knows how bad the outcome could have been without the cockpit protection device in place.

If nothing else, it should really serve as a reminder of just how dangerous this sport is, and why even low speed crashes could still have a bad outcome. It’s the whole reason why drivers shouldn’t be willing to have accidents: they’re always at risk, even if it sometimes feels like they’re bulletproof inside the car.

That was one of the main similarities between the two Hamilton/Verstappen collisions, and it also reminds me of a time when another driver who was at Monza this weekend went through a spell doing something similar. There was a period during Felipe Massa’s career – 2011 mainly – when he and Hamilton had numerous small incidents together, but then in their biggest contact, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the Brazilian was more than happy to have a crash.

It was in India towards the end of that year, and I should point out, Massa was usually the one in the right in terms of how an incident was playing out. But on that occasion he turned into a corner with Hamilton on his inside knowing that contact was certain to follow, but that he would once again be the driver in the right.

Sure, you’ve got the high ground, and more of the blame should certainly be attribute to the other driver, but as we saw at Monza, there can be serious outcomes from what don’t appear to be serious incidents.

And as safety in Formula 1 has increased, that willingness to get physical is an attitude that has been likely to rise.

So Verstappen and Hamilton’s run-ins feel a little familiar on that front. Verstappen was entitled to turn in at Silverstone, knowing a collision was more than likely, but he was more in the right than his main rival in that scenario. And the stewards agreed.

In Monza, the reverse was true. Verstappen was never really in a position to complete a clean pass – like Hamilton in Silverstone, he never had the high ground – and Hamilton had fairly showed him the edge of the track in the same way Verstappen did to Hamilton (also fairly) at the second chicane on the opening lap. But Verstappen tried to wedge his car into a position that was never going to end in anything other than a crash unless Hamilton took some unrealistic evasive action.

That’s 1-1 on the scorecards for me, but in both scenarios the contact has come because of a willingness – to some degree – for the driver who is more in the right for it to happen.

And that wasn’t the case at other times this season. Verstappen did allow Hamilton to run him wide in Bahrain at the start of the year; Hamilton did the same when he was on the outside at Imola and Barcelona. The driver on the inside chooses how firmly they push – and they push each other very firmly – but the driver on the outside then tends to have a final choice to make.

Verstappen had the high ground at Silverstone, but that might be a moot point when the car goes back to the garage on the back of a truck. Mark Sutton/Motorsport Images

Add all of that together, and you get one of the main reasons why the two stewards’ decisions that have resulted in penalties have used the word “predominantly”. In both occasions, the stewards have deemed one driver to be at fault more than the other, but not wholly at fault, and so the penalties themselves are relatively lenient.

If you’re going to hand out a penalty in the race – one that has a sporting impact, so not a reprimand or warning – then a five-second time penalty is the most lenient you can be. The next on the scale is 10 seconds, and that’s what Hamilton got in Silverstone.

Similarly, if a driver who is going to be penalized has already retired from the race and the time penalty option therefore doesn’t exist, a grid penalty is the standard course of action. The stewards have the ability to choose any number of positions, but three and five places are the most common, so you could even argue Verstappen’s penalty was the most lenient option. (Or if you include one place and two places, it’s certainly one of the least harsh).

Where there seems to be a lot of anger among fans is the fact that either driver is getting blamed at all. In such a fierce title fight, many are taking sides and then with that bias they are enraged when their driver is apportioned the majority of the blame, and similarly apoplectic when the opposite is true because apparently not enough blame is given. Go figure.

The stewards are always different at each race but they’ve set out their stall that they will penalize a driver if they feel they’re predominantly at fault, rather than let the two of them have run-in after run-in. And Max might be in the lead of the championship, but if anyone needs to change right now it’s him.

His lead is five points, but had he yielded at Silverstone then that advantage would likely be 23, if not 28 had he been able to find a way past Hamilton. Similarly, after Monza it could have been cut by a few points, or Verstappen might have extended it had he managed to overtake the Mercedes later on. The two McLarens ahead certainly didn’t make that an impossible notion.

That’s all before we even get to see how Russia pans out, where Hamilton will fancy his chances of gaining ground due to Verstappen’s grid penalty.

Hypothetical though it all is, there’s a lot of points Verstappen has likely lost simply by being involved in the incidents. Whether it’s a collision where he’s been more to blame or not, it has ended up costing him when it perhaps didn’t need to. When both drivers look back at what they could have done differently in 2021, Hamilton might not change too much, but Verstappen should want to.

That’s not to say he’s been in the wrong each time. Far from it. But being right and having an accident can lead to major consequences that cost you championships.