What we learned from Verstappen and Hamilton's press head-to-head before F1's finale

Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton were scheduled together for the final round of pre-weekend press conferences ahead of the Formula 1 title finale. But what did we learn from their conference room tete-a-tete? Here's how it went down.

What we learned from Verstappen and Hamilton's press head-to-head before F1's finale

As if they needed reminding.

The Formula 1 world championship trophy – the one that can only be awarded at the FIA prize-giving gala in case the winning driver’s actions or car are under scrutiny for a potential rules breach – sat between them. Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton were side-by-side for the final pre-event press conference slot at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Of course, it started late.

The pair adopted contrasting positions as host Tom Clarkson kicked off his initial questions. Verstappen sat back, relaxed and open, while Hamilton was more upright and poised, although closed off with his hands clasped.

Both opened with praise for their respective teams, with Verstappen in particular noting Red Bull’s improved position compared to a year ago – where the Dutchman jokingly carted off the ‘third place’ chair from the FIA’s press conference stage after sitting in it 12 times across the season. In 2021, he’s only needed it six times.

“After last year I didn’t have a lot of hope that we would be sitting here at the end of the season fighting for the title,” he said. “But I think from the start we were very competitive and we had some good results, a bit of bad luck as well, but overall we can be really proud of the whole team effort.”

Moments before, answering the question to both regarding if winning the 2021 championship would be the biggest moment of their respective careers – Hamilton breaking into uncharted territory ahead of Michael Schumacher and Verstappen eyeing a first world title crown (and first title overall in single-seaters) – the Mercedes driver highlighted his previous experience of season finales.

“I think it has been an incredible group effort from everyone back at the factory and at the track,” said Hamilton. “Nobody has ever done eight before, but I feel grateful. And I remember what it is also like going for your first so I’ve had those experiences and the rollercoasters of emotions that you go through.”

Before F1 learned Hamilton does not have access to free ice cream but Verstappen does – courtesy of his father’s half-brother’s shop – in answer to a question from young F1 fan Emily, the pair revealed they had both spent time relaxing in Dubai after the Jeddah race.

Hamilton, who also answered Emily’s question about how it felt to be famous by noting “it’s not really real”, had been “training and focusing on recovery”, as well as learning “to skydive on my back” at a local skydive tunnel. Verstappen “had a few nice meals with friends, family and I celebrated the birthday of my girlfriend as well. These things also need to happen because Formula 1 is one thing but it is also important to not forget that there are very important things as well.”

When Clarkson opened questions up to the floor – the press conference still operating virtually on Zoom due to F1’s ongoing COVID-19 restrictions – the stances changed. As journalists came asking their questions, Verstappen became more closed – one leg crossed, while Hamilton sat back, now more open.

Both insisted they were refusing – at least publicly – to countenance any speculation of the title being decided with a crash.

“As a driver, you don’t think about these things,” said Verstappen. “You just go into a weekend when you want to do the best that you can as a team and of course you try to win the race, but naturally the media starts to say these things. I don’t really have a lot more to comment on that. I arrived here just trying to do the best that I can and trying to be the best prepared and of course naturally trying to win this weekend.”

Hamilton said: “I honestly just don’t give it any energy. I am here to do the best job that I can with this incredible team. And going back again [to earlier in 2021], we never thought that we would be neck and neck going into this final race. We had an amazing recovery collectively as a team and we’ve been in a great position for these last few races. We will go full steam ahead with that same focus and we don’t waste energy on things that are out of our control.”

After Hamilton had insisted the conclusion to 2021 “just feels like another championship” – he’s been involved in three previous down-to-the-wire title deciders – the pair were asked to offer their thoughts on F1 race director Michael Masi highlighting passages of the FIA’s International Sporting Code in his Abu Dhabi event notes. The articles highlighted were a specific reminder that any unsporting conduct this weekend could yet result in a points deduction.

PLUS: The lessons F1 can take from the Masi "souk" deal criticisms

 

“Firstly I think it has happened in the past [points being deducted] and I am sure the stewards haven’t taken the precautions they have this time around,” said Hamilton. “So I think that is fair that they do it. Hopefully they won’t need to be used and we have a great race and move forwards. But I don’t think I have a particular opinion about it otherwise, I am here to do my job and I don’t want to see the stewards any more than they want to see me!”

Verstapped added: “I know what is in the sporting code, so nobody needs to be really reminded of that. I think they can put it in every single race weekend, there is nothing newly added for this weekend.”

As the broadcast element of the press conference ended, the camera picked up Hamilton tapping his right knee hurriedly as Clarkson opened questions back up to waiting journalists on the call. In total, 29 had tuned in – one of the largest virtual gatherings of the season – with 11 requests to ask a question already logged by the time proceedings began. It was clear there would not be time for every question to be asked.

Hamilton looked visibly more guarded when answering a question from a Daily Mail reporter – perhaps unsurprisingly given the publication’s history of publishing less-than-flattering articles about him (or any public figure for that matter).

But his answer to a question of whether he really believed Verstappen was “crazy”, as he had stated during a radio message as the pair fought for the victory in Saudi Arabia last weekend, was jovial.

“We're all a bit crazy to be able to do what we do,” said Hamilton. “And take the risks that we do.”

In response to a question about concerns the title could be decided on a controversial stewarding call, Verstappen noted “already throughout the year, there have been a few things which were maybe a bit controversial”. He added: “We want to win clearly. It should be about that, not about controversial decisions.”

 

Hamilton insisted again he did not give such considerations “any energy”, and repeated that line in responses to a question of “Can you 100% hand on heart say that you trust the man that you're racing alongside there to do the right thing on Sunday?”. Before that he’d claimed the jumper he had worn into the paddock in the morning – passing Autosport’s on-the-ground reporters in a queue for their first COVID tests of the event – was “just coincidence” that the back was embossed with the words: “fuck off”.

He added: “I mean, I didn't make the jumper. So literally as I put it on, I saw the message on the back.”

Earlier in the day, in a group Zoom call Red Bull had organised before the FIA press conferences slots for Verstappen and Sergio Perez, the former had suggested he’d been penalised for off-track driving that two of his fellow racers had also done in the Jeddah race. When asked which incidents he had been referring to in the Jeddah race, Verstappen said “I really don't understand, of course, why [incidents not involving himself] are judged differently”.

Then added: “But was between the two Ferrari drivers [where Charles Leclerc cut Turn 2 as Verstappen had done at the second restart during his battle with Carlos Sainz Jr]. And possibly between George [Russell] and [Lance] Stroll [where Stroll going off track passed the Williams driver on the first lap of the Jeddah race was noted but not investigated by the FIA], I think it was, yeah. Clearly there were different opinions on that.”

Autosport then took Hamilton back to an incident just after Verstappen had let him through for the final time in the Jeddah race, where the pair had run wide at the final corner and the Red Bull went off track. Masi had said that was “borderline on a black/white flag for unsportsmanlike conduct” in a subsequent call to Mercedes’ sporting director Ron Meadows.

We had wanted to ask Hamilton about it in the post-event press conference last Sunday. But this was cut short after the world champion’s late arrival, as he and Verstappen needed to get to the stewards’ office to discuss the incident where they crashed. Verstappen was later given a 10-second penalty as he was judged to be at fault with his sudden braking – per the stewards’ document announcing the penalty. Red Bull had also highlighted the incident as an example of differing standards being applied in different incidents.

“Yes, I find that kind of strange,” Hamilton said when Autosport asked him to explain his perspective on the incident. “Because firstly, I'm able to use all of the track. I've obviously gone past Max. And I was completely by, so it wasn't like I was alongside him and then pushed him away. And I wanted to make sure I got the best exit.

 

“So, I went wide on the way in. Max tried, I think, I've not rewatched it, but I think tried to come down the outside, but there wasn't space there. So, then I got a good exit as planned. I didn't go outside the white line. It wasn't trying to intentionally push him out. I actually didn't think he was there because I thought that I'd passed him and he was behind.”

Verstappen then repeated his suggestion that “for me there are different rules compared to some other drivers out there” when it comes to how racing rules are applied, while both said there was no need for them to sit down and discuss their racing ahead of Sunday’s finale.

The final question in the permitted time concerned how each contender felt about Sunday’s race being broadcast on free-to-air TV in both drivers’ home countries – Ziggo Sport in the Netherlands, where that channel has an exclusive deal, as does Sky Sports F1 in the UK, and Channel 4.

“I grew up in an era when it was free,” said Hamilton. “And remember being able to turn on many years ago. I know that's the way the world has gone obviously with pay-TV. But I think that's amazing [the finale will be screened for free in the Netherlands and the UK].

“Particularly in a time that we live in right now where people have been affected so heavily by COVID – people lost jobs, businesses –and so I think that's great. It's a great gift, I think, at this point of the year for people to be able to watch a sport and not have to worry how they were going to be able to watch it.”

Verstappen said: “Yeah, same for me. Of course. It's great for the people to be able to watch it. And I think also you know, for us it's even more special because the first time a Dutch driver has a chance of winning a championship. Hopefully, a lot of people will tune in.”

And with that, the call ended.

 

Autosport headed out to the top of the steps overlooking the Abu Dhabi paddock – the TV pen where both drivers would head after the press conference to the left below us. Ranks of photographers were assembled – would there be any interaction away from the press conference studio?

Verstappen had already left and was speaking to TV crews by the time we arrived. Hamilton, in a Mercedes top and not his expressive arrival outfit, had waited. He left with a Mercedes press officer and then went to conduct his own individual TV interviews. All this served to highlight just how much interest there is the outcome of this event. Even the mundane is being heavily scrutinised (even on these pages!).

So, what did we learn from Verstappen and Hamilton’s side-by-side press engagement?

Not a lot that we didn’t already know – although it was important to ask Hamilton for his perspective on the clash that earned a verbal warning from Masi in Jeddah as it is being cited by some observers as evidence that he too crossed a line in his driving in that race.

We noted that not once did the title contenders look at each other. The tension was clear. But, equally, they were respectful and chose their words carefully.

That was unsurprising. At this pivotal moment, neither wants to hand the other any extra ammunition that could be used to gride their rival on to find an extra tenth in qualifying or centimetre in battle come Sunday.

 

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