The war of words between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton is heating up, with Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff fearing a “messy” ending to the Formula 1 world title battle.
Verstappen and Hamilton both head to Abu Dhabi level on 369.5 points, the first time in 47 years that the championship leaders will enter the final race tied.
In the background though, a completely different mess is building.
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One that was exposed four months prior by a veteran driver not even involved in the ongoing feud.
The Hungarian Grand Prix was on the horizon and still all anyone could talk about was Verstappen’s collision with Hamilton at Silverstone two weeks prior.
A reporter went to ask Verstappen whether another crash could be on the cards should he end up “wheel to wheel” with Hamilton once more.
The Red Bull driver was quick to cut the reporter off though, losing patience at the constant questioning about the collision.
“Can we just already stop about this? Because it’s… we had so many f***ing questions about this, it’s just ridiculous,” he snapped back.
“Honestly. Honestly, the whole Thursday we’ve been answering this stupid s*** all the time. So can we just stop about it please?”
It was what veteran driver Fernando Alonso said in response to that outburst that spoke volumes to the other drama bubbling under the surface of the more visible one on the track.
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“I didn’t see the press conference,” Alonso said at time.
“But I feel probably what they are experiencing now. Especially Max, because he’s the younger guy fighting with a legend, with a champion. He’s not British, so it will be always more difficult for him.”
That comment — “not British” — had reporters seeking clarification.
“I have the impression always that when things become a little bit spicy or tense in the title fight… this sport is a British environment,” Alonso added.
“All the teams, they are British. Most of you guys, journalists or the media attention, and TV crews, every one comes from the UK.
“Understandably, there is a little bit of preference of your guy in your country who can be competitive and keeps winning.
“Always what I felt when I was racing, it seemed like I was the bad guy in Formula 1 when I was trying to fight against normally British guys.
“When I saw the Silverstone thing, when I see what Verstappen gets with some questions, I understand his position for sure.”
It is not just Alonso who feels that way though, with Red Bull boss Christian Horner taking aim at Sky Sports pundit Damon Hill in the lead-up to Monday’s race.
The 1996 World Champion clashed with Horner on Verstappen’s defending in Brazil last month before later claiming Hill has “obviously never been a fan” of his driver.
“We’ve got a British driver going for a record-breaking world championship,” Horner told The Telegraph last week.
“And Damon obviously has never been a fan of Max… If you talk to the Dutch then Max can walk on water. That’s just the way things are reported. And, you know, sometimes impartiality does get lost.
“It’s something that’s been noticeable over the last couple of years. But everybody has a right to an opinion. You know, it’s a free world. And, as I said to Damon, I’m the type of person that, if I don’t agree with your opinion, I’m not just going to roll over.
“If I think somebody is being an a***, I’ll tell them I think they’re being an a***.”
Horner did not exactly say that on Monday morning but he made it pretty clear that he did not agree with Hill’s assessment of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
There were several flashpoints from that race, with the most dramatic coming when Hamilton and Verstappen collided.
Verstappen was accused of ‘brake testing’ the Brit, with Hamilton calling his rival “f***ing crazy” as tempers flared.
Speaking on Sky Sports F1 shortly after the race ended, Horner and Hill clashed once more, correcting the pundit at times in a tense exchange as they reflected on the Grand Prix.
Hill: “It’s not possible to say what if, there were so many variables in that race. The pace we were looking at that Max had in the first section going that way… Inevitably it was the tyres that did it for you. Whatever had happened, do you think Lewis would’ve got you anyway?”
Horner: “I think as you well know Damon, the first sector is down to the driver, the next two sectors are engine dominated. So anybody can drive easy down the straight bits. What Max was able to do through the demands of sector one was truly impressive. It was the only chance of staying ahead if you look at the difference in performance around the lap. It was remarkable what he was able to do.”
Hill went on to add that Verstappen had been “driving brilliantly” and was “not taking anything away” from that but went on to disagree with Horner again.
Hill: “But your car set-up, it looked like to me you came in with a higher downforce set-up so you were able to get it on pole position. You were thinking in terms of track position. You didn’t get pole position.”
Horner: “No we were actually on lower downforce. If you look at the rear wing it was one of the lower end of the downforce, not on the higher end of it. Obviously we were going for an optimum set-up for the race. It’s a shame with [qualifying] yesterday not to finish the lap but Max was able to re-address that when he did manage to get the lead. Mercedes had an amazing car today and I think the reality was they were just that much quicker.”
It is unlikely to be the last time the pair will clash, with Horner accusing Hamilton of dropping “subtle little digs or provocations” that don’t get the same attention.
“But I think the great thing about Max is he doesn’t give a f***,” he added.
That is consistent with what Verstappen’s father Jos said to Dutch newspaper De Limburger of how his son handles the increased scrutiny.
“That’s how I experience it, yes,” Jos said.
“The English flock to Lewis en masse and try to make a story out of everything. They often look for something that is not there.
“Max doesn’t care, though. He draws his own plan.”
Jos though did admit that sometimes clashes like that Max had in the lead-up to the Hungarian Grand Prix can have an impact on their attitude to the British media.
“We’ve always been very open to the British press, but when you see things taken out of context a few times, you think, never mind,” he added.
“Fernando Alonso recently pointed out that Formula 1 is very British oriented and the press plays a major role in this. He has experienced this himself in the past.”
Verstappen even found unlikely support in the form of heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, who took to social media to call out the press for making a villain of the Red Bull driver.
“Just been doing a bit of reading up about the F1 rivalry between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, and how Max is being made out to be a bit of a bad boy in the media,” Fury said on his Instagram story.
“I know what it feels like to be treated horribly by the media. And it’s not nice, you know, especially when you’re young and you’re ambitious and you want to win.
“So give him a bit of a break, he’s only a young lad trying his best.”