Red Bull’s Max Verstappen seals his maiden F1 title by beating title rival Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes in a last-lap thriller at the season-ending Abu Dhabi GP on Sunday.
Mercedes bagged another World Constructor’s Championship title but were denied the double they would have wanted.
The two drivers headed into the season finale with one hand on the trophy as they found themselves level on points (369.5). Before the winner-takes-it-all race began, Verstappen found himself in an advantageous position as he started on pole.
On an enthralling Saturday, the Dutchman registered a lighting-quick hot lap of 1.22.09. Seven-time champion Hamilton started in second place on the grid, as he was four-tenths off the pace.
At lights out, Hamilton, for a second successive race, got off to a better start on his medium tyres and inched ahead of Verstappen, on softs, before Turn 1. McLaren’s Lando Norris, who started at P3, ran wide of the track, allowing Red Bull’s Sergio Perez to climb to third. As expected, Verstappen was going to fight back immediately. At turn 7, he lunged into the apex at turn 7 and the two cars collided. Hamilton was forced wide and rejoined through the escape route ahead of his title rival.
The Red Bull team expected Hamilton to give back the position but race director Michael Masi, along with the stewards, decided against investigating the incident and applying any penalty.
When RB asked Masi the reason behind the decision, he stated that any advantage gained by Lewis during the incident was given back by slowing immediately.
By the 14th lap, Hamilton’s lead increased by five-and-a-half seconds as Verstappen’s softs were beginning to cause trouble. But they were quick to react as Red Bull pitted Verstappen pitted their lead driver in the same lap. He rejoined in the fifth position and overtook Norris to jump to 4th, slipping behind Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz.
Mercedes reacted immediately, pitting Hamilton in the 15th lap and slotted him in second behind Perez, who was yet to pit.
Verstappen was back into the top-3 as he went past Sainz at turn 6 in the 18th lap. At this point, Perez was leading Hamilton by over three seconds.
What seemed like a quiet race suddenly picked up the heat when Hamilton and Perez indulged themselves in an intense duel through lap 20 and 21. It began with Hamilton momentarily leading Perez before the Mexican fought back to regain the lead in lap 20. The two raced wheel-to-wheel and it allowed Verstappen, who was initially six-plus seconds behind Hamilton, to cut down the gap to less than 2 seconds. Eventually, Hamilton got his Mercedes past Perez before the latter let Verstappen through to restore the original order.
Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen was the first casualty of the night as he was forced to retire in lap 28. The Finnish driver’s stellar career came to an end with the unfortunate incident. In lap 26, his brakes let him down leading to his rear axel getting locked. Eventually, he damaged his front wing by running into the barriers.
George Russell was also ruled out of the race in the same lap due to a power unit glitch. His final race for the Williams team also ended on an unpleasant note. He will next be seen in an F1 race car next season when he joins Hamilton at Mercedes.
Antonio Giovinazzi was the third car to retire as he spun in lap 36 and the incident led to a virtual safety car being implemented. Verstappen used the opportunity to pit for a set of hards. On the other hand, Mercedes kept Hamilton out.
With 19 laps to go, Hamilton led Verstappen by a little under 16 seconds. Verstappen did manage to bring down the advantage to about 12 seconds as Hamilton’s tyres aged to 34 laps by lap 48. Pirelli, the tyre manufacturers with F1, claims that on this Abu Dhabi circuit, the hards are good enough for 50 laps.
RB team principal Christian Horner, while speaking to the commentators during the race, admitted that Mercedes’ pace was too strong throughout and that they needed a “miracle”.
“We are going to need a miracle in the last 10 laps to turn it around but the clock is ticking. Max needs some luck from the racing Gods,” quipped Horner.
Things got interesting once again, this time in favour of Red Bull, as Williams’ Nicholas Latifi crashed out of the race by running into the barriers at turn 14. Verstappen pitted immediately for a set of fresh of soft tyres.
The safety card ended by the end of lap 57, leaving one racing lap. And Verstappen made the most of it. Using his fresher tyres, he overtook Hamilton in the final lap to win an absolute thriller.
Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz finished 3rd to bag another podium.
In the end, Horner and Red Bull got what they wanted. “A miracle and some luck from the racing Gods.”