The most dramatic Formula One season in years should have ended with Max Verstappen’s championship-deciding pass of Lewis Hamilton on the final lap of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The conclusion instead came nearly five hours after Verstappen became the first Dutch champion in Formula One history, when the FIA denied a pair of protests lodged by Mercedes over the controversial finish of Sunday’s race.
But the messy affair still isn’t over: Mercedes filed for reconsideration to the International Court of Appeal, turning in the paperwork as Hamilton left Yas Marina Circuit without commenting.
“Not much really to say about that. I think it also sums up a little bit the season,” Verstappen said hours earlier as the FIA heard Mercedes’s two protests.
Hamilton had a record eighth championship ripped away with five laps left when a crash by Nicholas Latifi triggered the safety car and gave race director Michael Masi a decision. The season-ending race and championship could be decided under yellow, or, the track could be cleaned for one final lap of racing.
Hamilton had been on cruise control and dominated Sunday after surging past pole-sitter Verstappen at the start. He led 51 of the 58 laps and was minutes away from breaking a tie with Michael Schumacher for an eighth title that would strengthen his case as best in Formula One history.
The decision by Masi to go green with a lap to go allowed Verstappen to pass Hamilton in turn five – Hamilton got a good look at the lead in turn nine but couldn’t complete the move – in a stunning conclusion to a title fight that will go down as one of the best ever.
Verstappen and Hamilton arrived in Abu Dhabi tied in the standings after 21 races across four continents, the first time since 1974 the contenders were level ahead of the finale. The rivals went wheel-to-wheel all season, crashing three times with Verstappen sent to the hospital after a collision at Silverstone.
It made for a bitter feud between Mercedes and Red Bull that intensified this high-stakes and sometimes chaotic title fight. It was compelling action every week, on-and-off track drama likened to the epic championship battles of James Hunt and Niki Lauda in 1976, and Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in 1990.
Hamilton, winner of three straight races coming into the finale to even the fight, had this one in hand and knew it until the Latifi crash. Whatever Hamilton said over his radio when Latifi brought out the safety car was replayed only as one long bleep to cover his expletives.
Masi controversially settled to resume racing with one final lap – the only chance for Red Bull, which lobbied to go back to green. Verstappen chased Hamilton through the first four turns, made his pass in five and at last achieved his childhood dream.
Verstappen and Red Bull celebrated in a champagne soak, he received hugs from his fellow competitors – including Hamilton and Hamilton’s father – and made his way to the DJ stand to jump wildly up and down to the music. The “Orange Army” of Dutch fans erupted in joy and fired off their traditional orange flares. The fans also chanted Latifi’s name in appreciation as they exited the circuit.
“My goal when I was little was to become a Formula One driver and to go for wins, to be on the podium,” Verstappen said. “When they play the national anthem, you want it to be yours, and when you stand here and they tell you that you are the world champion, it’s something incredible and special.”
And that was how this gripping season ended, with the more dominant team atop the final podium.
Verstappen’s 10 victories this year equalled the number of wins scored over his first six seasons in Formula One, and he led an F1-high 652 of the 1,211 laps while scoring 18 podium finishes.
But he’d been criticized for aggressive driving with Hamilton himself saying Verstappen was over the edge. Verstappen had complained all weekend he’s been treated unfairly by the race stewards, who he believed held him to a higher standard than other drivers.
He repeated that he wanted race control to play no role in the finale, but when Masi did, it went in Verstappen’s favour.
“I think [the track] was clear, so why would you run it out behind the safety car?” Verstappen said. “When everything is clear, you have to release the track, so I think that’s a fair point from the race director. Of course, now it works for me. But it also works against me, I know that.”
Hamilton did not participate in the postrace news conference with Verstappen and third-place finisher Carlos Sainz. He did one interview before the victory podium and congratulated Verstappen and Red Bull.
Hamilton, who turns 37 next month, used a late season surge to knock all 19 points off Verstappen’s lead in the standings. But his eight wins this season are the fewest for Hamilton since 2013, when he only won once and finished fourth in the standings.
He praised the effort of Mercedes.
“It’s been the most difficult of seasons. I’m so proud of them, so grateful to be on the journey with them. We gave it absolutely everything, we never gave up and that’s the most important thing,” Hamilton said. “I’ve been feeling great in the car this past couple of months, particularly at the end. But if I’m honest, we’re still in the pandemic and I just wish everyone to stay safe and have a good Christmas with their families, and we’ll see about next year.”
Red Bull won its first Formula One title since 2013; Mercedes had won every championship since.
The Mercedes mood was sour and Hamilton at first sat motionless in his car for several moments. The defeat ended his reign of four consecutive titles, and Mercedes boss Toto Wolff was incredulous on the radio as he demanded to Masi “the last lap be reinstated.”
“Toto, it’s called a motor race,” Masi tersely replied. “We went car racing.”
Hamilton received a long hug from his father, who then went to the Red Bull garage and hugged both Verstappen and Verstappen’s father. Jos Verstappen was himself a Formula One driver and raised his 24-year-old son to become a world champion.
It took Verstappen seven seasons to make it to the top – he was the youngest driver in series history when he debuted at age 17, and the youngest winner when he won the next season at 18 – and he savoured it with “Jos The Boss.” His father had not even made it to congratulate his son before he’d pulled on a championship sweatshirt.
Jos Verstappen, a one-time teammate of Schumacher, was winless in 107 races over eight seasons.
“With my dad, travelling through all of Europe, for that one goal to be in the Formula One, to hope that you can win a race and hear your national anthem, and then of course the ultimate goal is the world championship, which is very hard to achieve,” Verstappen said.
Mission accomplished and Red Bull celebrated by playing We are the Champions in its garage.