Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen head this Sunday to a decisive race for the championship where the winner takes it all in Abu Dhabi with different views on what proper and acceptable driving is.
Once the dust has settled and the debris has been collected, this is the fundamental conclusion to the craziest and most dramatic race of a Formula 1 season that has been filled with it.
The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix will go down in history as one of the most extraordinary races F1 has ever seen. And it prepared Verstappen and Hamilton for one of the sport’s most dramatic climaxes, both needing to figure out how to deal with each other on the track.
In a race filled with controversy and crashes, Verstappen and Hamilton had no less than four focal points between them, including a collision.
The Red Bull driver was found guilty in two separate incidents and imposed penalties for unsafe and / or improper driving, for a total of 15 seconds of race time.
Hamilton called his rival a “freak” on the radio during the race – adding a dirty word for good measure – and didn’t hold back afterwards, though he admitted the comments were made in the heat of the moment and “maybe he would. felt differently “once he had seen the second leg.
Verstappen, for his part, repeated his conviction to drive within acceptable limits, but he refused to get too carried away by the various controversies.
“We don’t need to be in the news,” he said. “They don’t deserve it.”
The headlines, however, will certainly be there, whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of the various incidents.
What were the controversial moments?
In a nutshell, the highlights of the race were the following:
On the first restart after a red flag period, Verstappen bypassed the outside of Hamilton’s Mercedes at the first corner and then took the lead by cutting inside the curb at the second. He gave Verstappen the lead and left Hamilton, who had been forced to the side, behind Alpine’s Esteban Ocon.
But the move was judged against the rules because Verstappen had overtaken Hamilton by exiting the circuit. As it happened, the race was immediately stopped due to a separate incident, and the extraordinary spectacle of Red Bull negotiating with race director Michael Masi over where Verstappen should line up for the restart ensued.
They agreed that he would start third, behind Ocon and Hamilton. At the first corner, Verstappen then dived inward, and quite brilliantly and legitimately both passed the first corner to take the lead.
Hamilton quickly knocked out Ocon and another intense race between the title contenders began to unfold.
Hamilton was clearly faster, a smarter tire choice and a better race set-up by reversing the performance tables from qualifying, when Verstappen was in the running for pole before crashing into the last corner.
At the start of lap 37, Hamilton took a ride in the Red Bull heading into the first corner and was slightly forward on the outside as they rounded the corners.
In a situation with notable similarities to the controversy in Brazil two races ago, Verstappen went deep and went off the track, Hamilton avoided him and went away too, and Verstappen kept the lead.
Unlike in Brazil, where the incident has not been investigated, Red Bull was told this time that Verstappen had to return the seat. The team ordered him to do it. But the message didn’t reach Mercedes until the two cars headed for the last corner and had time to tell Hamilton.
Verstappen slowed to let Hamilton pass. Hamilton didn’t understand what was happening and slowed down behind him until Verstappen braked hard and Hamilton tried to avoid the action, cutting his front wing against Red Bull’s rear tire.
They then raced for another six laps, during which Verstappen was penalized by five seconds for the crash in the first corner. He initially tried to see if he could pull that margin and more over Hamilton to secure victory, but found he couldn’t, and so he slowed down to let Hamilton pass again, only to immediately pass him back.
A lap later, Hamilton was finally able to make it through the last corner, pushing Verstappen wide and to the edge of the track as he did so, a move that earned Mercedes a warning that Hamilton was close to receiving a black and white flag for dangerous driving.
Digging into accidents
Let’s look at the Turn One incident first:
The reason is that many of the pilots did not understand why Verstappen had not been investigated in Brazil. They felt that what he had done shouldn’t have been allowed.
The incident in Brazil was extensively discussed during the drivers briefing during the next race in Qatar, the drivers seeking clarity on what was and was not allowed in terms of fair racing.
Drivers were told that, while all accidents would be judged on their individual merits, if a driver was deemed to have pushed someone off the track or forced them to avoid a collision, they would be penalized, as the rules dictate. .
Verstappen said, “He had a ride [on me] kind of like Brazil and of course I braked late and went a little off the line and had a moment and went wide. But he didn’t even make the corner. , so both of us pretty much missed the corner and then I don’t think it’s fair to say I took the penalty.
“I find it interesting that I am the one who gets penalized when we both went off the white lines. In Brazil it was fine and now all of a sudden I get a penalty for that.
“It was clear that we both didn’t make the corner. But I don’t want to spend too much time on it. We both have to move forward. We are talking more about white lines and penalties than real F1 and that’s a bit of a shame.”
Hamilton said: “We have seen several incidents such as Brazil, where we should be racing on the track between the white lines and the rules have not been clear by the stewards and these things have been allowed.
“I know I can’t overtake someone and go off the track and hold the position. This is well known to all of us riders. But it doesn’t apply to either of us, I guess.”
Did he think Verstappen had driven dangerously?
“I definitely feel there have been scenarios where this has been the case,” Hamilton said. “It’s not the first time I’ve had to avoid a collision, and that’s the way it is at the moment.”
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said he believed the penalty was “tough”, adding: “Is he [Verstappen] solely responsible if two drivers go off the track?”
The answer to that from the stewards in Jeddah is, indeed, yes it is. Verstappen was the one on the inside, with Hamilton alongside on the outside. Verstappen went too deep and went wide, either deliberately or because he lost control, so it’s his fault, they established.
And this is because in that scenario the driver on the outside has the possibility of giving way or crashing. It was precisely this kind of approach by Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher that imposed these rules, when they chose to ignore what had hitherto been a gentlemen’s agreement between drivers.
Red Bull, meanwhile, has declared inconsistency on behalf of the stewards.
Horner said: “I would ask you to look at Lewis’ crash in the last corner where he pushed Max in the same way.
“Any driver who has gone through karting or raced in any category is a tough race. That’s how these guys have raced in their careers.
“Lewis gives what he gets and is very cunning in the way he does it. These are two guys who are fighting on such thin edges pushing themselves to the limit. If you don’t want them to spread out, put a gravel trap there.”
Why was Verstappen penalised again?
Now for the collision on the run to the last corner.
Verstappen said: “I went to drive to the right side and I slowed down and I was braking and downshifting and he just stayed super-close behind me and I don’t really understand why. I was just trying to let him by.
“I’m just going slower and slower, pulling the downshift. We had a… oh I don’t know, a miscommunication or whatever and he ran into the back of me and that was it.”
Hamilton was asked why he had not just gone past Verstappen if he saw him slowing in front of him.
“One, it wasn’t clear,” he said. “Two, I didn’t get the information [that he had to let me by]. Then it became apparent he was trying to let me past, which was what he had been asked to do, but before the DRS zone.
“That would mean he would just DRS back past me. That was the tactic. The worst part was the heavy braking that happened at one point. That’s when we collided. That was the dangerous part.”
Hamilton is referring to the fact that they were approaching what’s known as the DRS detection point – where if a driver is within one second of the car in front, he can use the overtaking aid to boost his speed down the following straight. Hamilton was trying to avoid a scenario where Verstappen let him by, only to pass him back with DRS down to Turn One.
The stewards looked into this incident after the race. They gave Verstappen a 10-second time penalty and two penalty points on his licence.
Their reasoning was that Verstappen had been told to give the place back “strategically” and “it was obvious that neither driver wanted to take the lead prior to the DRS detection line”.
They added: “The key point was that [Verstappen] then braked suddenly [at 69 bar] and significantly, resulting in 2.4g deceleration… The sudden braking was determined to be erratic and hence the predominant cause of the collision.”
What does this mean for Abu Dhabi?
The background to all this is that Hamilton went into the race knowing that Verstappen could afford a collision between the two of them and he could not.
If neither finished, the gap between them going to Abu Dhabi would have remained at eight points. That’s the most Hamilton could make up on Verstappen in one race if he wins and the Dutchman is second.
But that would not be enough for Hamilton to win the title, because although they would be level on points in that scenario, Verstappen would be champion on the basis of having one more win.
That’s absolutely not to say Verstappen tried to take Hamilton out on Sunday. He drove like he always does. Hamilton knows that will be how Verstappen drives, but he also knew that he had to win, and a non-finish would be the end of his title hopes. So he had to be the one to give way in any on-the-edge wheel-to-wheel scenario.
In a way, although they are now tied on points, that position has not changed much.
All things being equal, they will race for the win again at Yas Marina on Sunday. But Verstappen has nine wins to Hamilton’s eight. So if neither finish, Verstappen will be champion.
Do Red Bull care how they win it, Horner was asked?
“Yes of course we do,” he said. “We want to win it on the track, not in the stewards’ room, not in a gravel trap. It has been a tough fight, all the way through the year. There has been some fantastic racing. I hope it is a fair and clean race in Abu Dhabi.”
Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff said: “In Brazil, I said we are setting a precedent if it’s not investigated that could end up really ugly for the championship. And we have seen incidents that were pretty much Brazil at slower speeds. And we don’t want to have that in Abu Dhabi. The quicker car with the quicker driver should win the championship and not by taking each other off.
“I would hope today’s race has enough repercussions that everybody is going to learn from it and adapt for the final race in Abu Dhabi.
“Similar driving if it were deemed by the stewards to be over the line would probably also be penalised in Abu Dhabi and that could well end in a messy situation for everybody and I don’t think the championship deserves a result influenced by a collision. So I very much trust in the self-regulating decision.”