At the culmination of an incredible Formula 1 season, the dramatic fluctuations at there at the front of the grid were merely exacerbated in an unbelievable final weekend of action.
After 21 races across 10 months, Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton went into the final race weekend in Abu Dhabi completely locked on points with Verstappen only ahead on count-back due to achieving one additional pole position throughout the course of the season. The dutchman had lead throughout the majority of the season however, after a relatively slow start in the drivers’ Championship, Hamilton had turned things around in the latter stage of the season, winning the 3 races in the build-up to the season finale to level the scores in the Championship race. With so much back and forth between the two drivers and the supporting acts of Mercedes and Red Bull, there was no shortage of off-track drama to supplement the high octane races that had thrilled fans throughout a pulsating season.
As a result, Max Verstappen had the opportunity to become the first ever Dutch World Champion and break the seemingly impenetrable stranglehold that British and German drivers had on the Championship in recent times. His opponent, Sir Lewis Hamilton, who received his knighthood shortly after the final Grand Prix of the season, was on the brink of not only a remarkable comeback, but to secure his position as the greatest driver in the history of the sport. Going into the race, Hamilton sat level with the great Michael Schumacher on 7 world titles. An unprecedented 8th would have him stand alone at the summit of an incredible list of greats within the sport.
Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
After a phenomenal qualifying race, Max Verstappen secured a crucial pole position, an immaculate race plan from Red Bull set Verstappen clear by almost half a second, to which Hamilton himself acknowledged that the Dutchman was simply too quick to catch in a phenomenal display of speed.
On race day however, it didn’t take Hamilton long to assert his will on the race and those around him as he returned to the front of the grid by the very first corner after securing P2 through the qualifying process. From that moment, Hamilton dominated the race, amassing a dominant lead on the pack before recording an early pit. Despite a courageous and selfless defence by Verstasppen’s teammate Sergio Perez to allow the Championship leader back into the hunt, Hamilton returned to the front and restored a significant advantage.
A bold strategy from Mercedes left Hamilton out on a virtual safety car as they were conscious of a pit stop losing vital track position to those chasing him down. As a result, he was left to run out for the remaining 36 laps on the same tyres, a decision that would ultimately comeback to haunt him.
As time began to expire on the 58 laps of the final race of the year, Hamilton found himself with an unassailable advantage.
With just 5 laps remaining however, first place in the Grand Prix, the entire World Championship and, more specifically Nicholas Latifi, came to a crashing halt.
The World Championship Controversy
Latifi’s crash brought with it a safety car that allowed Verstappen to pit for soft tyres whilst Hamilton stayed out on his used hard tyres. The move was made to maintain track position as, with just 3 laps remaining, the prospect of clearing the debris and allowing more competitive racing seemed slim. With the advantage to those at the front of the race, Verstappen emerged from the pits with 5 cars between himself and Lewis at the front of the pack. With such a short time remaining, the prospect of overtaking all 5, followed by the 7-time world champion, seemed almost impossible.
It was at this point that Michael Masi, the race director, made a decision that would ultimately decide the destination of the Drivers’ World Championship.
Under ‘usual circumstances’, lapped cars would be allowed to overtake to allow themselves to be removed from any battle at the front of the pack. With 5 cards sat between Hamilton and Verstappen as well as more behind the dutchman, Masi made the call to allow those 5 cars through, leaving the two protagonists of this season within touching distance of each other and, with just 1 final lap remaining, removed the safety car from proceedings to allow a sprint to the finish line.
Whilst the spectacle that was created will be a talking point for years to come, the fairness of the actions of the race director and the impact they had on not just the championship but over a piece of Formula 1 history has sparked huge controversy throughout the sport. Allowing Verstappen to utilise such a significant advantage left Hamilton awaiting the inevitable as the race re-started. Not allowing the remaining lapped cars through also seemed to be a contradiction to the regulations that ensured fairness and clarity of actions to be undertaken in such an event.
The decision ultimately allowed one final lap for glory between the two dominant racers however, for parity, a red flag would have allowed all cars to pit and start in their current track position for one final time. The opportunity to provide a single-lap race for the title would have provided not only a chance for significant exposure for the sport, but a chance to remove the controversy that has subsequently created a significant backlash to Michael Masi and the sport as an entity.
Mercedes submitted two official complaints however both were rejected within a matter of hours.
Despite the plethora of talking points, Verstappen claimed the first title by a dutchman in Formula 1 history whilst Mercedes claimed their 8th consecutive Constructor’s Championship in their latest display of dominance over the rest of the field.
Hamilton, recently knighted, conducted himself with pure class throughout the drama that unfolded and congratulated Verstappen and Red Bull on their victory.
One thing that can be ascertained from the events in Abu Dhabi; it seems that despite the attention and column inches that have accompanied the finale of one of the most incredible seasons in the sports’ history, Formula 1 itself may struggle to recover from the circumstances under which this title was decided.