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A request to Verstappen before his F1 title showdown with Hamilton

OPINION: Max Verstappen faces a tense title showdown with Lewis Hamilton this weekend, the culmination of a chaotic, crash-filled season. Autosport Chief Editor KEVIN TURNER urges the Red Bull challenger to keep things clean in Abu Dhabi, regardless of the outcome

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 2nd position, on the podium

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 2nd position, on the podium

Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Dear Max Verstappen,

Please, please don’t do it. We know that you’ve been waiting what seems like a long time to get your hands on a car that can challenge for the Formula 1 world championship. And the pressure heading into the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix must be immense.

With the recent surprising pace of Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes, it’s probably in the back of your mind that another clash, one that took both cars out, would give you your first F1 crown. It’ll hardly be Plan A, but it’s hard to be confident you’ve ruled it out. If it wasn’t for the Azerbaijan GP blowout, British GP crash, or the Hungarian GP start chaos, you’d have won the title already, right? So it’d just be natural justice?

No. The Baku and Hungaroring incidents are just the sorts of things that happen in motorsport. Silverstone was different, but you must have known that Hamilton was going to stop jumping out the way at some point.

Perhaps not at such a high-speed corner, but he knew you had more to lose – and you should have done as well. Sometimes it can be better to concede and continue the fight another day (or, in this case, probably another lap given your pace at Silverstone). That could be the last element missing from your game.

Many of the moments you’ve been involved with could, in isolation, be described as racing incidents, or at least be hotly debated. Running Hamilton out wide at Imola in April, for example, is the sort of thing we’ve seen lots of times before.

But the problem is the overall pattern. You’re always the aggressor and never back down, even when you must know the move is done. Or not on in the first place, such as the incident with Hamilton at Monza. Was that a move of desperation because it was your last chance to pass him or was it something more sinister, an attempt made knowing that if you both crashed your points lead would remain the same?

PLUS: How Verstappen is ruining his F1 title battle with Hamilton

You are one of the finest drivers in the world right now, so you also knew that braking later than Hamilton on a tighter line with older tyres was only ever going to mean you both ended up off the track at Turn 4 in the Brazilian GP. You got away with that one, which is why not all of what has happened this year is your responsibility. Others should be having a word.

Monza collision wasn't the finest moment in battle for this year's title

Monza collision wasn't the finest moment in battle for this year's title

Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images

It’s completely understandable that Red Bull, and Christian Horner in particular, would want to back you publicly, but some sensible chats behind the scenes might have helped you rein yourself in.

But that’s not really the team’s style. It was always reluctant to do anything about Sebastian Vettel’s red mist moments alongside Mark Webber. And the team’s rivalry with Mercedes and Toto Wolff has meant we’ve had some daft moments this year, such as your old team-mate Alexander Albon going around Silverstone to provide ‘new evidence’ against Hamilton…

No, it’s up to F1 and the FIA to outline what the rules are. Which is why not penalising you at Interlagos, which admittedly helped make it a better race, contributed to the nonsense in Saudi Arabia. You can’t just keep trying to drive around the outside of someone late and run off track to get by, or run people off the road from the inside, and get away with it.

Analysis: 10 things we learned from the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Do you know where that line is and just ignore it, or do you genuinely have no idea? Given your abilities in every other area – leading the team, incredible speed, tyre preservation, wet-weather skills – it’s surely more likely to be the former. As though you’re constantly pushing your competitors and the stewards on what you can get away with.

Your stunning performance for most of the final Jeddah qualifying lap and victory in the Monaco GP are just two examples of how precise you can be

Pushing the limits is part of the game, of course, but you have to be careful, particularly when the safety of others is involved.

You say you think that F1 is “more about penalties than about racing” but that’s because you’ve forced the situation. You’ve consistently flirted with, or flat-out crossed, the line that most drivers regard as proper wheel-to-wheel etiquette. Which means either everyone is going to end up driving like you and we’ll have smouldering wrecks everywhere or attempts will be made to bring you into line, which is beginning to happen.

PLUS: The line Verstappen finally crossed in F1's first Jeddah race

Now you can respond. Your stunning performance for most of the final Jeddah qualifying lap and victory in the Monaco GP are just two examples of how precise you can be. Add that to better judgement – or perhaps a different attitude – in combat and you’ll be a better racing driver. At the moment, it sometimes feels like you’re a very fast driver – perhaps the fastest in the world – who then uses his car as a weapon when the racing part of the job arrives.

The views of others are unlikely to bother you much, which as a top sportsperson is fair enough. And there are plenty of fans who have no problem with your driving, as shown by the fact you, unfathomably, won driver of the day in the Saudi Arabian GP. But there’s surely something to be said for winning the right way.

Not penalising Verstappen's Brazil defence arguably contributed to his moves in Jeddah

Not penalising Verstappen's Brazil defence arguably contributed to his moves in Jeddah

Photo by: Sutton Images

Despite his rant a year later, Ayrton Senna’s removal of Alain Prost from the 1990 Japanese GP was not his proudest moment. And Michael Schumacher later expressed regret at how he conducted himself in the 1997 European GP finale against Jacques Villeneuve.

But if the moral, fair play argument doesn’t register with you, that you believe winning at all costs is all that matters, perhaps there’s a more practical consideration. At the current rate, there will be more penalties and it’s a long time before you start losing those seven licence points. A race ban or two would hurt your 2022 campaign.

That’d be unnecessary. Like Senna and Schumacher, you’re good enough not to need to resort to those tactics. Hamilton hasn’t and his records have surpassed both of those greats.

It’s possible to race hard but fair. Take a look at some of the Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button battles in the last decade and a half. Or some of Nigel Mansell’s great passing moves if you fancy going back a bit further.

Taking Hamilton off in Abu Dhabi won’t necessarily guarantee you the title either. The sport has changed a lot since Senna got away with his 1990 attack and Schumacher was stripped of second in the drivers’ table in 1997. Would the FIA take away the crown in such circumstances? Surely best not to find out.

Perhaps it’s unfair to suggest that this is even on your radar. After all, there’s a difference between a driver who is prepared to crash and one who intends to.

It could also be that you rock up at Yas Marina, qualify on pole and disappear down the road to secure the title. In that case, great, well done to you. There have been some magnificent moments this season and to be the driver to end Hamilton’s run of titles would be remarkable.

But if it’s looking harder than that – either because that pesky Hamilton is ahead or looming large in your mirrors again – try not to hit him. Nico Rosberg, the last person to beat Hamilton to the F1 crown, had ample opportunity to take Lewis out of the 2016 finale but didn’t. And he was still champion.

Whatever the outcome, it's important that the title is won the right way

Whatever the outcome, it's important that the title is won the right way

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

You’ve also said it makes no difference to you whether you’re champion or not. That’s hard to believe but if it’s true presumably you can cope with being second and will be able to come back, head held high, for another go next year.

Many of us were happy to see you and Red Bull take the fight to Mercedes and Hamilton at the start of 2021. We want different winners and to see good fights. But that’s the point - good contests are ones where we see competitors, in this case the finest in the world, go toe-to-toe and perform at their best. Not take chunks off each other’s cars whenever things get close. A bit more respect is needed, particularly given the inherent danger of motorsport.

Many of us were happy to see you and Red Bull take the fight to Mercedes and Hamilton at the start of 2021. We want different winners and to see good fights

The saying ‘show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser’ isn’t helpful. Every sportsperson, even the great ones, always loses more than they win – Hamilton has lost 64% of all the F1 races he’s started by the way. Often you can learn more in those times.

Please drive like a champion in Abu Dhabi, whether you get the 2021 title or not. The sport, which presumably you love, and your place in it would be all the better for it.

Will Verstappen continue to push the rules to their limits in Abu Dhabi?

Will Verstappen continue to push the rules to their limits in Abu Dhabi?

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

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