For all the relief that Lewis Hamilton escaped serious injury at Sunday’s Italian Grand Prix, another collision between the reigning champion and standings leader Max Verstappen was hardly difficult to imagine in the build-up to their latest clash.
In their first altercation since the scene-stealing controversy of the British Grand Prix in July, when Hamilton sent Verstappen hurtling off the track at Silverstone in an incident that caused a fierce row, Hamilton was forced off at the second chicane in Monza.
With less than half of the race gone, the pair then locked wheels in a spin that sent the Red Bull vehicle landing sickeningly close to Hamilton’s head.
Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton’s rivalry took another twist after Sunday’s latest crash
The fierce rivalry evokes memories of Alain Prost (L) and Ayrton Senna more than 30 years ago
This is a contest that is dynamite for Formula One. For many, it possesses a throwback quality to some of the blockbuster rivalries of the past – the most immediately recognisable of which is Ayrton Senna’s bitter feud with Alain Prost.
While the dangerous consequences play out on the track, the war of words is arguably the aspect that infuses the most drama into the sport’s showdowns between reliably uncompromising personalities.
Prost and Senna’s hostility worsened considerably before it eventually improved. Their almost unfailingly tense time as team-mates at McLaren-Honda in the 1988 and 1989 seasons culminated in the chaotic ding-dong battle of the Japanese Grand Prix in their second year together, when Senna’s reckless attempt to keep his championship hopes alive resulted in him taking out Prost and being disqualified.
One of Prost (R) and Senna’s (L) most memorable moments came in their clash in Japan in 1989
Senna was pushed by marshals after a collision with champion Prost before being disqualified
Prost moved to Ferrari in 1990 but found himself in another Suzuka showdown with Senna that year. Then a three-time champion, he considered retirement after another collision with his Brazilian nemesis ended with both drivers on the gravel, ensuring that Senna took the title.
Hamilton and Verstappen are yet to be quite as scathing of each other as Prost and Senna were – the Frenchman labelled his adversary ‘disgusting’ after that 1990 scandal – but their resentment for each other seems to be building race by race right now.
Red Bull boss Christian Horner remains incredulous over the British Grand Prix, when Verstappen flew into a barrier and was hospitalised as a consequence of perceived aggression from Hamilton, causing damage estimated by Horner to be worth around £1.3million.
Senna won the Japanese Grand Prix in 1993 but Prost earned his fourth and final championship
Hamilton congratulated Verstappen after the Dutch Grand Prix but the pair are hardly buddies
Verstappen seemed appalled by Hamilton’s celebrations after he won the race, and Hamilton insisted he would not be backing down for anyone in a compellingly spiky interview afterwards.
Now the roles have been reversed somewhat: Hamilton has admitted his salvation via the Halo has been a stark reminder of the fragility beneath his spectacular athleticism, and Verstappen has been condemned for appearing not to check on his rival as he walked away from the debris.
At 36, Hamilton is the Prost-like figure of the two: experienced enough, some say, to avoid the naiveties that Verstappen betrays in appearing to constantly tread a tightrope towards trouble, and a master of grinding out wins through remarkable consistency and stamina.
The occasionally waspish Verstappen has similarities to Senna, not least because he is now in a position, with a five-point lead at the top of the standings intact, from which he could use some of the risky spoiling tactics traditionally associated with the late great.
Damon Hill strongly suggested that Verstappen was motivated by that approach on Sunday. The margins between the drivers after 14 rounds are so small that playing for stalemates would be a nerve-shreddingly high-stakes way of edging towards the title, but there was an sense of inevitability about their latest crash.
As well as on Sunday, Verstappen has sent Hamilton off the track in Imola and Barcelona this season. His apologists would attribute his transgressions to poor judgement, not to mention a desperation to take his first crown and deny Hamilton a record-equalling eighth.
Hospitalised Verstappen was appalled by Hamilton’s celebrations after the British Grand Prix
Hamilton could have been badly injured but for his safety Halo during the scary crash at Monza
What is undeniable is that Verstappen and Hamilton, like Prost and Senna at their peak, are locked in an intensifying two-man race for glory. They are not quite lapping everyone else, as Prost and Senna did, but Valtteri Bottas is a distant third behind Hamilton.
How Sunday’s episode will affect the destiny of the title, as was so often the case when Prost and Senna were regularly swapping places on the podium, will probably not become clear until the season finale.
Monza seemed set up for Mercedes to close the gap, but Verstappen’s three-place grid penalty should push the pre-race momentum back towards Hamilton ahead of the Russian Grand Prix, which has always been won by Mercedes since it debuted in 2014, in less than a fortnight.
Verstappen claimed that Hamilton called him after the Silverstone scandal. There was evidence in Italy that their conversation may have been terse, and you would hope that their stand-off will not reach the poisonous depths of the one between Prost and Senna, who eventually re-established a healthy relationship. A season heading for the wire does not need any more crashes between its two champions in waiting.