Lewis Hamilton won an extraordinary Saudi Arabian Grand Prix to move level on points with Max Verstappen in the Formula One drivers’ championship as the race set new standards for drama.
Saturday’s qualifying session saw Hamilton take pole as Verstappen crashed while on a lap that would have put him at the front of the grid, but that proved just a mere taster for an utterly remarkable main event dominated by a plethora of controversial incidents.
Verstappen got ahead after the season’s penultimate race was red-flagged twice in the first 16 laps, but a series of virtual safety cars kept Hamilton in touch with his Red Bull rival, who went beyond track limits to keep the lead at the first corner on lap 37 in an incident eerily similar to their famous tangle in Brazil.
Verstappen was subsequently instructed to give the place back, only for Hamilton to crash into the back of him as he seemingly attempted to do so. Then Verstappen successfully gave it back at turn 27, but did so in a DRS zone, enabling him to immediately retake the lead.
At that point, Verstappen was again told to give the position back, with that incident to be investigated after the race, and he was served with a five-second time penalty for the previous tangle at turn one, effectively ending his hopes of victory.
Rear tyre degradation saw second-placed Verstappen back off and Hamilton claimed the fastest-lap bonus point to level matters on 369.5 points, though it is the Dutchman who still holds first place having won nine races to the Mercedes driver’s eight.
The safety car was brought out after Mick Schumacher went into the wall between turns 21 and 22, prompting Hamilton to dive into the pits on lap 10 to switch to hard tyres while Verstappen stayed out and took track position.
With race officials wanting to repair damage to the tyre wall, the red flag was then waved, stopping the race, giving Verstappen the chance to switch his tyres without using a pit stop – infuriating Hamilton.
The subsequent standing restart brought more drama. Hamilton got a much better getaway, with Verstappen going off track but staying ahead of Hamilton, who lost a further place to Esteban Ocon.
Behind that tussle, Verstappen’s Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez was sent careering into the wall, while Nikita Mazepin and George Russell also crashed, resulting in another red flag.
A tense negotiation between Red Bull and race director Michael Masi saw Verstappen cede a position to Hamilton with Ocon on pole for the second restart.
Hamilton and Ocon touched going into the first corner and enough room was left for Verstappen to dive down the inside for the lead. However, the following laps saw debris from incidents further down the field led to a collection of virtual safety cars, leaving Hamilton in striking distance on lap 37, where the tension was ratcheted up further as Verstappen kept his place in contentious circumstances.
His attempt to give up his position took Hamilton by surprise and led to a collision that damaged the front wing of the Mercedes, the Briton accusing Verstappen of ‘brake testing’ him in the aftermath.
Whether an intentional action from Verstappen or a product of miscommunication, it meant the outcome of the race was essentially settled over team radio, the Red Bull driver left in no mood to spray champagne on the podium with Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, who took third.
Verstappen quickly walked off to leave the Mercedes drivers to celebrate together, the fallout from the most dramatic race of an incredible season sure to last until the title is decided in Abu Dhabi next week.
AN UNFORGETTABLE WIN
Hamilton’s win was his 103rd in Formula One, though he surely would have liked it to have come in less contentious circumstances.
But the manner of this success means it is certainly one he will never forget and Hamilton won’t mind the nature of the victory if he is soon celebrating a record eighth F1 world title in the United Arab Emirates.
‘MORE ABOUT PENALTIES THAN RACING’
In a radio interview for the ‘Driver of the Day’ honour, which Verstappen was given by the fans, he used the platform to voice his displeasure at the race effectively being settled by the officials.
“Luckily the fans have a clear mind about racing,” Verstappen said. “I’m just trying to race. This sport is more about penalties than racing. I’m pleased the fans enjoyed it and I gave it my all today.”
With their collision under a stewards’ investigation, there could yet be more penalties to come.
1. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) +11.825s
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +27.531s
4. Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +27.633s
5. Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) +40.121s
6. Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +41.613s
7. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +44.475s
8. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +46.606s
9. Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo) +58.505s
10. Lando Norris (McLaren) +61.358s
1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 369.5
2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 369.5
3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) 218
4. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) 190
5. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) 158
1. Mercedes 587.5
2. Red Bull 559.5
3. Ferrari 307.5
4. McLaren 269
5. Alpine 149
The title will be decided in Abu Dhabi, where Verstappen will win his first world title or Hamilton will surpass Michael Schumacher and claim the outright record with his eighth championship.