After a season of intense, turbulent, and controversial yet gripping racing, Formula One almost unfeasibly found aspects of every element for its denouement in the desert. With Max Verstappen’s victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix decided in taking the lead from Lewis Hamilton on the final lap of the final race, he believed he had sealed his first F1 world championship.
His reaction and that of his Red Bull team was one of unbridled joy while Hamilton and Mercedes were left disconsolate and convinced the win that had been in their hands had been unfairly snatched from their grasp, leaving the greatest prize in motor racing potentially in the laps of the lawyers.
In a season already marked by drama this finale simply could not have been scripted nor will there be consensus on how it played out. Inevitably it ended in protests to the stewards grinding on long after the trophies had been awarded and the fans departed. The stewards rejected the protests but more wrangling may lie ahead with Mercedes having lodged an intention to appeal against the decision, and with the right to take their case to the court of arbitration for sport.
As the fireworks went off at Yas Marina, Verstappen celebrated with tears in his eyes while a similarly emotional Hamilton held his obvious disappointment in check but having been consoled by his father Anthony, offered sportsmanlike congratulations to his rival.
For Verstappen should he maintain his grip on the trophy, this was the culmination of a lifelong dream, achieved in the white heat of competition against the best driver of this generation in what has been a superb season. He can be rightly proud in winning it although he is still only 24 and becomes the first Dutchman to have won the F1 world championship. He was the youngest driver in the history of the sport on his debut aged 17 in 2015, and has the potential to go on and win many more.
A more mature, complete driver now, Verstappen’s youthful excesses have been largely curbed and his judgement is more circumspect although he remains an aggressively confrontational driver, uncompromising with his elbows as Hamilton discovered this season.
This year he has taken 10 wins, delivering some relentlessly confident and controlled drives for some dominant victories. He was unbowed and entirely unintimidated going up against the seven-times champion Hamilton, supremely confident in his own ability to do so. His appetite to race, to compete, is fierce.
His victory was made all the more remarkable such has been the level of competition from Hamilton who was at the top of his game. Their relationship, initially one of mutual respect, has deteriorated as the intensity has grown and the accusations between teams have flown. This was a conflict fought on many fronts, a maelstrom with the two drivers locked in a battle of wills at its heart, growing increasingly fractious and ending on a similarly discordant note in Abu Dhabi.
Hamilton, Mercedes and many fans felt that their driver had been the victim of a decision making process that had been influenced by Red Bull and cost Hamilton the title. After taking the lead with an electric getaway Hamilton had enjoyed a comfortable pace advantage. He held it despite cutting a corner as he was driven wide when Verstappen attempted to retake the place. The stewards deemed it acceptable for Hamilton to do so which was a debatable decision but one dwarfed by what later transpired.
Hamilton had maintained his lead through the pitstops and had even seen off a late surge from Verstappen who had taken an extra stop for fresh tyres to try and chase down his rival. The race looked all but won as Hamilton held a solid gap only for a remarkable final twist.
A late crash for Williams’s Nicholas Latifi brought the safety car out on lap 53, with five to go. Red Bull immediately pitted Verstappen for fresh tyres but Mercedes left Hamilton out to maintain his track position.
As the laps ticked down the FIA had announced lapped cars could not overtake to move them out of the way, leaving a five-car buffer between Hamilton and Verstappen, enough to ensure Hamilton would almost certainly hold his lead to the flag.
Then the FIA race director Michael Masi was contacted by Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. “Why aren’t we getting these lapped cars out the way?” he said. “You only need one racing lap.” Shortly after which the FIA then approved the five cars in question could unlap themselves, removing them from between Hamilton and Verstappen. However, had they allowed all the lapped cars to unlap themselves there would not have been time to complete a final racing lap. Within which arcane and apparently arbitrary calculation lay the ire of Mercedes.
Instead it left one lap of racing on the restart, a sudden death, single-lap shootout between the pair and Verstappen’s fresh tyres paid off as he passed for the lead at turn five to take the place and the win.
The Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, objected to Masi. “No Michael, no Michael no, this isn’t right … Michael!” he said on the radio, and his team issued two protests after the race, relating to the safety car procedure. The key issue was whether protocol was correctly followed and the level of discretion Masi had to interfere within the framework set out by the regulations. Both protests were rejected, over four hours after the chequered flag.
The win, for the moment, remains the Dutchman’s as does the title with Hamilton denied for only the second time since 2014. Certainly the drama, the controversy was apt, indeed almost inevitable given how the season has been fought but the way it played out in Abu Dhabi left an aftertaste of acrimony and bitterness in many quarters, and F1 facing the fallout from a finale which will doubtless rain long and hard.