JONATHAN McEVOY: Lewis Hamilton's thanks halo for saving his life... Max Verstappen's Red Bull would have run right over his head but for the safety cage in which he sat
Lewis Hamilton sat helpless in his cockpit as more than 1600lb of car hurtled towards the back of his head. By a miracle of science called a ‘halo’, the world champion was left with little more than a sore neck.
He will visit a specialist to be checked out but lives to fight another day, and Hamilton thanked God for that mercy. ‘I feel incredibly blessed that someone was watching over me today,’ he said after the carbon cage saved his life.
It was, of all predictable yet spectacular things, Max Verstappen’s Red Bull that sat a crucial fraction of an inch away from Hamilton’s purple crash helmet – an entanglement that hyped yet further this increasingly toxic title fight to levels of potential danger that can barely be contemplated.
The finger of blame was pointed by four stewards, after deliberations not lasting anything like an hour as shadows lengthened here at Monza, at Verstappen, the 23-year-old driver of great skill but perhaps even more pugnacious aggression.
They thought the Dutchman should have backed out as the two championship contenders went into a snaking slice of tarmac not big enough for the both of them and handed him a three-place grid penalty for the next race in Russia a fortnight hence.
‘A tactical foul,’ claimed Hamilton’s boss Toto Wolff of the incident on lap 26 of 53 at the Variante del Rettifolo, the first chicane at the Temple of Speed, the pair’s second big collision of the season. Last time, at Silverstone, Hamilton was hit with a 10-second penalty for the 180mph crash that left Verstappen concussed.
This clash came after a sluggish stop resulted in Hamilton emerging from the pits as Verstappen charged along the straight at 225mph at as fast a place as any on the Formula One calendar. Hamilton moved left to defend his line at the right-hander. He was narrowly but clearly ahead. Then at the ensuing left-hander Verstappen kept his nose in. He ran out of room, hit the sausage kerb, was sent airborne, landed on Hamilton, his rear-right tyre pelting through the Briton’s rear wing before the halo did its remarkable job.
The front of Verstappen’s car was buried deep in the gravel. ‘That’s what happens when you don’t leave room,’ he complained.
Verstappen climbed out and, with the briefest of glances, strode straight past Hamilton on the long walk back to the garage. ‘I found that surprising,’ said Hamilton of Verstappen’s seeming lack of concern. ‘When we do have incidents, we want to make sure the other guy is OK, but the good thing is I was able to get out.’
Verstappen later said he had seen Hamilton was moving his hands in an attempt to reverse and knew he was well enough.
For a long while – maybe a minute or two – Hamilton remained in his cockpit before making his own painful pedestrian tour back, his helmet hiding his bubbling emotions until he had climbed the spiral stairs of the Mercedes motorhome to reach his sanctuary on the top floor with its opaque windows.
Returning to whose fault it was, I believe Verstappen should have played a cannier game. He was on warmer rubber and could have bided his time and passed Hamilton with DRS on the next straight.
But Max has never been blessed with the patience of Job, and as the distinguished former racer John Watson told me last night: ‘When will he learn? And until he does, he’ll never win a world championship.’
Despite these doubts, Verstappen’s advantage over Hamilton remains at five points with eight rounds scheduled to play out, Covid-permitting. Which figures prompted 1996 world champion Damon Hill to say Verstappen acted deliberately.
Hill, famously a past victim of Michael Schumacher’s ruthlessness, said: ‘I have to say, looking at the replay of Max on Lewis at Turn 1, there was no way he was going to make that work.
‘He had to take evasive action, as Lewis did in the second chicane to avoid an accident, so the only conclusion is he might have been thinking, “I have to take him out”.
‘Now, I don’t want to think that of any driver, but I think it was either an error of judgment or a calculated move to collide with Lewis.
‘Which is strong, strong stuff, and I don’t like the idea that I’m accusing anyone of doing that, but he’s got a points advantage and this was a race which Mercedes were supposed to win.’
Red Bull did not try to shift the blame on to Hamilton, with team principal Christian Horner merely describing the smash as a ‘racing incident’. He had not the heart to say anything else, knowing any accusations would not be overly plausible. Tellingly, that was even before the stewards convened.
Afterwards, Horner said he was ‘disappointed but accepted the stewards’ decision’. The verdict recorded that Verstappen was ‘predominantly to blame’.
Hamilton spoke from his motorhome three hours after the accident. He sounded weary but relieved, the shock of his escape only just sinking in, the adrenaline wearing off and no longer hiding some physical discomfort. He was not angry but measured as he grappled with what had occurred and wondered what perdition may lurk through a few testing bends over the coming months.
He said: ‘Thank God for the halo which saved me and saved my neck. I feel very fortunate today.
‘I don’t think I have ever been hit on the head by a car before. And it is quite a shock for me. If you look at the images, my head is really quite far forward. His rear wheel landed on the halo and the inside part of his tyre landed on my head.
‘I will need to see a specialist to make sure I am good for the next race because my neck is getting tighter and tighter.
‘I have been racing a long, long time, so I am so grateful I am still here. We are taking risks and it is only when you experience something like this that you look at life and see how fragile we all are.’
Ironically, Hamilton was a critic of the ‘halo’ ahead of its introduction three years ago. ‘The worst-looking modification in Formula One history,’ he said prior to its introduction in 2018. ‘I hope I am given the option of not using it because I won’t.’
He wasn’t and thank heavens he is.
The device has already possibly saved the life of Charles Leclerc, when Fernando Alonso’s McLaren hurtled over his Sauber. Jean Todt, the FIA president who pressed ahead with the innovation in the teeth of traditionalist opposition, deserves praise for his perseverance.
As for the ins-and-outs of the incident, Hamilton said: ‘I was ahead at the start of the chicane. I left enough room going into the corner, but we took the same speed into it. I was ahead going into the next chicane. He lost control over the kerb and went into me. I don’t feel at fault because I got hit from behind.
‘There is a point at which you have to concede you cannot make the corner and go across the run-off and I am not sure why Max didn’t.
‘We have to learn from our scenarios on track.’
Memo to Max: yes, there are times when a driver must recognise that the road is simply running out and you need to get out of that spot.
With entire justification, Hamilton added: ‘I don’t have a history of these incidents. When you get away with things, you just continue to do it.
‘We do need to look into this so the right decisions are being made, because nobody wants to see anyone get injured. We must put better protocols to avoid this sort of stuff in the future.’
Once the safety car moved off, a race continued, and what a wonderful day it was McLaren with Daniel Ricciardo taking his eighth win and 21-year-old Briton Lando Norris second. It was the Woking-based team’s first win for eight years, nine months and 18 days, since Jenson Button won at McLaren, and first one-two in 12 years.
Ricciardo set up the platform for triumph by sniffing out the lead at the start from second on the grid. The Aussie, the F1-mad Emma Raducanu’s favourite driver by all coincidences, has struggled this season so this was the perfect tonic for him, while Norris has never finished higher in his three seasons of improvement. Valtteri Bottas, of Mercedes, was third after driving from the back of the grid.
But, sadly for them, the podium men were merely postscripts on a day of drama and deliverance.