Lewis Hamilton has told Max Verstappen it is “game on” as Formula One’s title rivals gear up for the fourth chapter of their championship battle in Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix.
Hamilton holds an eight-point advantage over Verstappen following his second win of the season in Portugal last weekend.
Red Bull started the year with the speediest machinery, but there was an all-too-familiar look to the top of the timesheets at Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya on Friday as Hamilton led team-mate Valtteri Bottas in an ominous Mercedes one-two.
Verstappen finished only ninth after he was forced to abandon his hot lap when he ran wide at the new left-handed turn 10.
Verstappen, already 0.134 seconds slower than Hamilton before the error, elected not to run again, thus handing the initiative to Mercedes.
The Dutchman will mark his 100th appearance for Red Bull on Sunday. Verstappen was only 17 when he was handed his debut by Toro Rosso in 2015.
The following year he was promoted to Red Bull, winning for the team in Spain in his maiden drive after Hamilton and Nico Rosberg crashed out.
“Max has more experience now and he is clearly incredibly hungry to win more races and to win this championship so it is game on,” said Hamilton.
“That’s what we are here to do, to race, to be fighting for wins, and the battles that we have had in these first few races have been amazing. I am excited to enjoy more.
“It is crazy to think there are still 20 races to go, and you are seeing the closest battle we have had for some time.
“Max has a championship-winning car and a championship-winning team who can pull off the job if we don’t do ours. From my side, experience will help, but we have to get the job done.”
Verstappen’s championship pedigree will face another stern examination in Barcelona.
Rosberg, the only driver who has been able to stop Hamilton from winning the title in the past seven seasons, believes the Briton’s rival is making too many mistakes.
Verstappen could have started from pole at all of the opening three races but for hiccups in qualifying.
He performed an illegal overtake on Hamilton while dicing for the win at the season opener in Bahrain and then allowed Hamilton to cruise past him in Portimao after running wide while in pursuit of leader Bottas.
Verstappen might also be alarmed by Hamilton’s track record in Spain. The seven-time world champion has not lost at the circuit soil since his collision with Rosberg in 2016.
“We have managed to do a better job, but we cannot continue to rely on mistakes by the others,” added Hamilton, who will be out to claim the 100th pole position of his career on Saturday.
“Personally, I am really happy with my output so far. You are always trying to raise the bar, and to make as few mistakes as possible, and that is something that is very difficult to do.”
For now, their rivalry is amicable, but both Mercedes and Red Bull team principals Toto Wolff and Christian Horner do not expect the niceties will last.
But Verstappen said: “Our relationship is very relaxed. We get on very well and when you respect each other and when you can say to each other, the other one has done a better job, that is important.
“We will fight hard but they will, too, which is good for the sport.”