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On Touching And Other Forms Of Intimacy

Pole position qualifier Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle Red Bull Racing, Second placed qualifier Lando Norris of Great Britain and McLaren and Third placed George Russell of Great Britain and Mercedes pose for a photo in parc ferme during qualifying ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Austria.
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

In Max Verstappen's first-ever race in a Red Bull car, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg—former best friends turned famously hateful Formula 1 teammates—took each other out in the very first lap, gifting Verstappen his first-ever win in a Red Bull. "The two Mercedes come together!" David Croft shouted, which along with "They touch!" is one of the most intimate phrasings for on-track collisions.

The collision between Verstappen and Lando Norris in the Austrian Grand Prix this Sunday lacked the explosive narrative that drove Hamilton's spinning car into Rosberg's along a straight, but it draws some tortured comparison. Verstappen and Norris are good friends off track, who have never had to fight for championship points so consistently until this year; after multiple close races and an eight-lap battle, they finally touched while fighting for a race win and gifted the win to third place. Verstappen was deemed at fault by the stewards, and received a 10-second penalty. Norris, for his part, had to retire due to damage from the incident.

Here is what the collision looked like:

For all the drama, it's very minor. Verstappen squeezed Norris at turn three, as drivers tend to do in Austria. People have already dug out old videos of earlier moves in the same turn—Sebastian Vettel squeezing Lewis Hamilton back in 2018, Carlos Sainz Jr. squeezing Verstappen just last year—which look nearly identical to the move Verstappen pulled, but didn't result in contact. In this case Norris, possibly peeved after a contentious eight-lap battle, refused to fall back as other drivers in his position had previously done. That the subsequent contact resulted in punctures for both drivers and enough damage to retire Norris's car was extremely unlucky. That Verstappen received a penalty for the contact is emblematic of a broader stewarding inconsistency on how much the outcome matters in penalty decisions.

The Austrian GP has been a track limits hellscape. Race stewards wanted cars to stay on the track, but drivers were not physically incentivized to do so due to the track layout: broad curbs and run-off areas, which meant that drivers were never punished for leaving the track. Instead, drivers would be penalized for crossing defined track limits. Qualifying was a nightmare sequence of deleted lap times. This year, the FIA made several alterations to the circuit, including the introduction of gravel traps and narrower curbs, which helped significantly with most of the track limits issues, but didn't help when both Norris and Verstappen wound up off-track during their battle.

A crash requires two participants, and this goes even when one person is very clearly not at fault. Forcing someone to take evasive action and lose position should result in the same consequence as actually hitting them, but F1 stewards are extremely reluctant to give penalties without a collision. It's hard to imagine a world in which the contact would've resulted in a penalty if there hadn't been two punctures and a retirement. It's equally hard to imagine a world in which Verstappen would've received a penalty if Norris had bailed; just look at how previous stewards had handled incidents at the same corner. Until that kink of stewarding is worked out, even relatively minor incidents like these will become massive talking points.

As for Verstappen and Norris's friendship, I'm sure that they'll work it out. When asked after the race about whether or not he and Norris would discuss the incident, Verstappen said, very levelly, "Of course we will talk about it. At the moment I think it’s not the right point, it’s better to just let things cool off I think ideally." This did not preclude the drivers from staging their own little August Strindberg play to everyone else. Verstappen was far more mellow in interviews, but on the post-race radio immediately after hearing about his penalty, he said, "Of course. Yep, sure. That's just ridiculous. [Norris] could just send it left and right. What do you want me to do?" Meanwhile, Norris said, "I don't know what I'm going to say. I did all I could. I gave a fair, respectful, on the edge battle, but that's not what I got in return ... It's not for me to say, it's for him to say something. I did nothing wrong, he was the one in the wrong. So he's the one who should say something, not me."

Hamilton and Rosberg have set up a doomed narrative just waiting for any pair of young drivers to walk in and repeat it, but I personally wouldn't get my hopes up too high—at the very least, Norris and Verstappen have spared themselves the fate of being teammates.

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