Sunday’s Italian Grand Prix saw McLaren win their first race in the pinnacle of motorsport in 3214 days. As Daniel Ricciardo crossed the line his beaming smile was clear for all to see even through his fireproof helmet. Sadly though, the story that no doubt will take the majority of headlines this week, is the collision between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton on lap 26. Mercedes-AMG Formula One Team Principal Toto Wolff labelled it a ‘tactical foul’ and the stewards deemed it worthy of a 3-place penalty for Verstappen at the Russian Grand Prix in a fortnight. Prior to this decision, Red Bull Racing’s team boss Christian Horner called it a "racing incident". All of this shows us that the debate will no doubt rumble on for a while yet.
Even before the 26th lap of an unforgettable Italian Grand Prix, there had already been signs that once again there would be no inch given between Sir Lewis Hamilton and current F1 Drivers’ Championship leader Max Verstappen. The pair had a close run in early on when Hamilton went side-by-side with Verstappen into the second chicane, the two rivals briefly touched and Hamilton ran wide telling his team radio he had been forced off the track. This moment led to the commentators referring to Max Verstappen’s infamous 2021 Silverstone DNF and pondering whether history would repeat itself. They did not need to wait long to find out.
An uncharacteristic human error down at Red Bull Racing resulted in desperately slow pitstop for Max Verstappen on the laps prior to the collision. This meant that on the 26th lap when Lewis Hamilton exited the pits, himself also having been delayed longer than usual while stationary in the pits, the pair were practically side by side heading into Turn 1.
Lewis Hamilton managed to stay in front and kept a tight inside line through Turn 1 while Verstappen launched a late attack on the outside. In doing so, the Dutchman was now on the inside through the second part of Monza's legendary right-left chicane as the Championship leader - saw a gap. Upon making the move, Hamilton gradually closed the door and unsurprisingly - whilst remaining on the throttle and not relinquishing - Verstappen ran out of room, mounted the kerbs and ended up literally on top of Hamilton’s W12.
Having heard that his rival team principal, Toto Wolff, had called Max Verstappen’s move “a tactical foul” and “that it would end up in a crash" Red Bull Racing team boss Christian Horner came to his talismanic driver’s defense. It is worth noting that these initial remarks came before the stewards’ decision.
Christian Horner, whilst interviewed by Sky Sports F1, stated:
"I'm disappointed that Toto would say it would be a professional foul. I think it's a racing incident, and thankfully nobody was injured today. He [Verstappen] earned enough to be given a bit more space to work with on the left there. You can probably argue it from both sides, so if you take a middle ground on it, you say it was a racing incident. But I genuinely think that you could argue Max should have bailed a bit more to the left, you can argue that Lewis should have given him more space."
At a time before the 3-place grid drop penalty announcement, Horner was confident that it would not be possible for the stewards to predominantly hold either driver responsible.
"I can't see how possibly you could apportion blame more on one than the other in an incident like that," Horner said. "Of course, I'm going to argue on Max's behalf that he earned more space for Turn 2, but you can understand Lewis probably arguing the other way. So I think if you look at it objectively, it's a 50/50 incident. It's a racing incident…We shouldn't have been in that position with the poor pitstop. We had what looks like a human error. It was on the front right, the wheel was done up but the car wasn't released. A human error. Usually, the guys are great in the pit lane. Then Mercedes had an issue and that's what put the drivers together," Horner added.
"They're fighting hard for the World Championship. Ultimately there's respect and I'm sure they'll discuss it in front of the stewards. They'll be starting next to each other at the majority of races. I can't see how you can portion more blame on one driver than the other."
After these comments, it was shortly announced that the FIA stewards could in fact apportion blame to one party rather than the other. They warranted that Max Verstappen was “predominantly” to blame and handed him a three-place grid drop for the Russian Grand Prix. As well as the Dutchman’s first 2021 penalty points on his license – two in fact. Christian Horner took to social media to share his thoughts on the decision:
“For Max Verstappen, the off with Lewis will obviously be hotly debated from both sides. The stewards have ultimately given us a grid penalty for Sochi which is disappointing as we felt it was a racing incident, but the main thing is no-one was injured today thanks to the halo…It wasn’t our day but congratulations to an old friend in Daniel Ricciardo and McLaren on their return to the top step of the podium.”
Speaking on Channel 4’s coverage of the race, former F1 racer turned pundit David Coulthard commented:
“They’ve [the stewards] made the call let’s just get on with the next race.” History has shown us that this rarely happens. Now, with a two week break before the next Grand Prix, there is ample time for many column inches of commentary and opinion as the talking gets done off the track.
Having won his 8th Formula One Grand Prix on Sunday, Daniel Ricciardo stated that “We can expect better versions of me to come through the rest of the year.” When it comes to the battle of Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton we no doubt can expect a lot more drama to come before this stunning 2021 F1 season reaches its conclusion.