Lewis Hamilton on the dangers of F1, his battle with Verstappen and the importance of winning 'the right way'

The sun had barely risen when Lewis Hamilton's jet touched down in New York on the morning of the Met Gala. It had been a rough flight for the seven-time Formula One world champion, interspersed by on-board physio sessions to relieve a building tension in the muscles around his neck and upper back.

Less than 24 hours earlier, he narrowly escaped a nasty injury when the car of title rival Max Verstappen collided with his own and was launched over his head at the Italian Grand Prix. Footage of the accident showed how the halo on his Mercedes -- a protective titanium hoop above the cockpit -- was the last barrier of defence preventing Verstappen's right rear tyre from crushing Hamilton's head.

Even with the halo doing its job, contact was made between the tyre and Hamilton's helmet, pushing his head forward in the cockpit and extending the muscles in his neck and back. Frozen in a frame, that fraction of a second as the tyre rolled over his head looks terrifying, and as Hamilton set foot on the other side of the Atlantic the morning after, he took a moment to put it all in context.

"I'm in a place in my life where I felt a lot of gratitude, and I was like, wow, things can change so quickly in life and just in a millisecond something can happen," he told ESPN ahead of this weekend's Russian Grand Prix. "I just felt really grateful to be there, be healthy and not be in worse shape."

He had considered not boarding the flight at all, abandoning his trip to New York and cancelling his appearance at the Met Gala. But his attendance had been months in the making and carried extra significance for Hamilton this year, as he planned to use his table at the event to promote three young Black designers trying to earn their breaks in the fashion industry.

He'd been inspired by the backstories and ideas of the designers over Zoom calls in the weeks before the event and had used his friendship with Anna Wintour, Vogue's editor-in-chief, to ensure they had a table in the middle of the room to gain maximum visibility. This was a trip he was not willing to give up.

"I spoke to one of my people and said, 'Maybe I shouldn't go to this thing,'" Hamilton said, recalling the evening after the accident. "They were like, 'If you really, really don't want to go, it will be really sad for these individuals, but I'm sure they can understand.' And I decided I really didn't want to have to cancel on them.

"So I looked at what the steps would be needed to attend and I needed Angela [Cullen] (Hamilton's personal physio) to come with me just in case it got worse or my back seized up more over the next 12 hours. So Angela came with me and we worked on the flight there.

"I still had my back and neck taped up, I had checks, physio and acupuncture that day, which released a lot of the tension. It was a little bit tight still when I went to the Met, but I was totally fine with the anti-inflammatories and I was just like, 'Let's go!'

"You just have to run with it, right?

"Anna was so gracious to give us the centre table in the room, so it was the most important table in the room. And just watching, watching closely to see the reactions and the faces on these designers around me -- they looked so much in their element. That was a really cool, proud moment for me."

The logic of boarding a transatlantic flight the evening after an on-track collision has since been questioned by Hamilton's critics, including the senior advisor of rival team Red Bull, Helmut Marko, who hinted that, perhaps, Hamilton had overplayed the severity of his injuries for dramatic effect.

Hamilton said he had hardly noticed the tyre of Verstappen's car making contact with his head at the time, but as the adrenaline diluted later in the evening, the pain started to emerge.

Regarding Marko's criticism, he pointed out on Thursday: "I didn't say I was dying!"

But as is the case with every serious accident in F1, the collision with Verstappen was a reminder of what, ultimately, is at stake at every grand prix. Drivers rarely discuss the worst possible consequences of racing in F1 -- the subject is usually considered taboo -- but at 36 years of age and with a perspective on life that extends beyond the racetrack, Hamilton is surprisingly open about the subject.

"I would say in my younger days, no, you didn't think about it," he said. "When you are young, you think you are going to live forever, but I think now, of course, I am more conscious of it, which is why I had more gratitude. I definitely wouldn't have been in that head space when I was younger.

"If you think about it a lot, then of course that can affect you and I can't allow that. I still love what I'm doing and I know there is a danger factor there. I just think I'm grateful the safety is where it is and I know we are progressing the safety next year and the impact structures are improving constantly.

"But I still have so much to do with my time here still. So then you have to compartmentalise it. I'm aware of it. I respect that danger bubble and it's exciting also.

"I've just been so excited to get back in the car [since Monza]. I guess if a day comes when I don't want to get back in the car, you know it's time to stop. But it doesn't seem to be there yet."

'I've always had a target on my back'

Hamilton and Verstappen were fighting over the same bit of tarmac when the Red Bull driver clipped the kerb at Monza's famous first chicane, lost control and was launched over the Mercedes. After the chequered flag, the race stewards decided Verstappen was "predominantly to blame" for causing the collision and gave him a three-place grid penalty for this week's Russian Grand Prix. But the stewards' decision, which is based solely on the facts of the incident itself, tells you nothing about the backstory that has been brewing all year.

At the British Grand Prix in July, Verstappen ended up in hospital to undergo precautionary checks following a 190 mph collision between the two drivers at the high-speed Copse corner. Hamilton took the blame from the stewards that time, receiving a time penalty in the race, and was criticised by Verstappen for celebrating when he went on to win in front of his home crowd.

Go further back in the year and there were examples in Spain, Portugal and the first race in Italy in which Hamilton backed out of wheel-to-wheel moments that could easily have ended in a collision. Clearly neither driver is willing to give an inch for fear of showing a weakness, but Hamilton believes his approach of picking his battles will eventually pay off.

"Yes, I've had to back out of certain scenarios with Max because otherwise we are going to crash, and I'm just like, 'I'll beat him in another way,'" he said. "I think, 'If I can just survive this corner, I will challenge and fight him another way, stay close, use strategy and all these different things.'

"But that comes with experience and I really do hope that that pays dividends at the end of the year, but of course you have just got to find the right balance. That's really what I'm just trying to do."

Verstappen's aggressive driving style is nothing new to those who have followed the 23-year-old's career to this point. Ever since his debut season in 2015, he has been known as one of the hardest racers on the grid, but it's only since the start of 2021 that he has had a car capable of taking the fight to Hamilton's Mercedes on a regular basis.

Despite two collisions and a handful of near misses so far this season, Hamilton insists Verstappen's style of racing is nothing new to him either. Asked how he can compete with a rival who is unwilling to ever back down, he cited Fernando Alonso -- his first teammate in F1 in 2007 -- as one of the drivers he has previously raced who operates in a similar way.

"Max is not the first person [like that]," Hamilton said. "I've always had a target on my back. I've always been at the front since I was young. I had No.1 on my car for many years even before I got to Formula One.

"Even Alonso would never give up. So I've raced against a lot of drivers that do that. Some are smarter than others and I know that, again, there's other corners [later in the lap] and it's a marathon, not a sprint. Some drivers are right to the point of it being not right and then are able to control it, and some don't.

"I guess the most important thing is to make sure we stay safe, because at the end of the day with all this excitement and this championship, the one thing we want to see at the end of the year is people going home to their families and having a good winter."

Following the Silverstone collision, Hamilton phoned Verstappen to discuss the incident one-on-one and to explain that he had not known Verstappen was in hospital when he celebrated his victory. By accounts from both sides, the call did little to change either driver's feelings toward the collision, and after Monza, Hamilton opted against extending another olive branch.

"No, we haven't spoken," he said on Thursday. "I haven't heard from him and of course I called him up after the race in Silverstone, but I don't think we need to ... it's racing -- we move on.

"I know he'll probably learn from the experience, as I will. I can't expect things to change, so I will just try to apply myself better moving forward, and that's all I can control in my space."

'You always want to win the right way'

But amid headlines of a feud between the two drivers and concerns over what will happen next, Hamilton insists there is no bad blood between himself and Verstappen.

Asked how he would describe his relationship with Verstappen this year, he said: "I don't feel like it's changed ... it's difficult, because when you are around people and you are in hostile scenarios, and when they are around you, they are one way with you and they are different when you are not around.

"Me and Max, when we have seen each other after the race, I have always tried to be respectful whether he is first or he's behind me. I always try to make sure I go over to him, and it doesn't feel any different to me. Of course, we sat in the stewards' office the other day and it wasn't hostile -- he gave his point of view and I gave my point of view.

"I called him after Silverstone, but, again, I don't mean to be patronising, but I am much older. I'm much older and it was important for me to call and to be able to break the ice.

"I wouldn't have been able to do that when I was 25. I don't hold any hostility against him.

"I feel he's a tremendous talent and I am enjoying racing with him. Do I agree with everything he does? It doesn't even matter.

"What matters is that he does him and he will learn, and all I can control is what I do and how I handle things.

"Whatever happens at the end of the year we are going to be shaking hands and we will be back to fight again the next year."

But the question of what happens next still hangs over this championship. Both drivers have dropped points at various rounds, both drivers have worked miracles elsewhere to take unexpected wins and both drivers have collided with the other on track trying to get ahead. And yet, only five points separates them in the drivers' standings after 14 races.

Hamilton has won only one race in the past 10, but he goes into Sunday's Russian Grand Prix as the clear favourite to secure victory, while Verstappen and Red Bull have decided to cut their losses with their three-place grid penalty and fit a brand-new engine that will automatically send Verstappen to the back of the grid. A win on Sunday would put Hamilton ahead in the championship with seven races to go, taking him one step closer to an unprecedented eighth world title.

But above all else, Hamilton says he wants a fair fight -- win or lose. He insists the prospect of a collision deciding the title at the final round of the season -- as has happened on numerous occasions in F1's history -- will be avoided at all costs.

"There's never ever a question about that," he said firmly. "I would never want to win in that way.

"If that means you don't win at all, at least you have your dignity. I wouldn't want to win any other way; you always want to win the right way.

"I love racing, I love fighting for the championship and, of course, at the end of the year that's what I've been working for, so you can't say you are not going to be disappointed if you don't achieve what you are trying to achieve with the group of people you are trying to achieve it with.

"But also I cannot forget the positive things that have happened. There are a lot of positives to take from this year, and I think hopefully there will be some more moving forward. It's been a hell of year."