Max Verstappen has become Formula 1 world champion for the first time after an extraordinary, controversial finish to the season-ending Abu Dhabi GP which saw him overtake Lewis Hamilton on the final lap after a dramatic late Safety Car.
Mercedes have protested the result, however, with stewards currently hearing their case after the team were left livid by the way Race Control handled the end of the Safety Car procedure before the race resumed.
Hamilton appeared to be heading for his record eighth crown after overtaking the polesitting Verstappen at the start – despite lap-one controversy at Turn Five – but a crash for Nicholas Latifi in the Williams brought out the Safety Car with five laps to go and created all manner of drama to end an absolutely incredible season.
Red Bull pitted Verstappen for new soft tyres, while Hamilton stayed out in the lead to keep track position on his older set.
While there were initially five lapped cars between the contenders in the queue behind the Safety Car, Race Control instructed that pack to join the back of the queue on the penultimate tour and that recreated the Hamilton-Verstappen one-two for a blockbuster final-lap restart.
Amid protestations from an angry Mercedes pit wall to FIA race director Michael Masi, the race resumed on the 58th and final lap of the race – and gripping season – and Verstappen overtook Hamilton down the inside at Turn Five to take the win and the crown away from his Mercedes rival.
Verstappen becomes the first Dutchman to win the title and the second champion for Red Bull after Sebastian Vettel, the last non-Mercedes driver to take the championship in 2013.
“It’s unbelievable,” said a disbelieving Verstappen, who at 24 is the sport’s fourth-youngest world champion. “Throughout the whole race I kept fighting and to have an opportunity on the last lap, it’s incredible. I’m having cramp. It’s insane.”
Despite the huge disappointment of the stunning late turnaround just as he appeared on the cusp of yet more history, Hamilton sportingly went straight to congratulate Verstappen in parc ferme.
“Firstly congratulations to Max and to his team. I think we did an amazing job this year,” said F1’s outgoing champion. “My team, everyone back at the factory, have worked so hard this whole year, it’s been the most difficult of seasons. I’m so proud of them and I’m so grateful to be a part of the journey with them.
“This last part of the season we gave it absolutely everything and never gave up.”
Hamilton had hoped to become the sport’s eight-time world champion but remains tied with Michael Schumacher on seven for now.
Mercedes still clinched a record-extending eighth consecutive Constructors’ Championship from Red Bull, but that impressive achievement is likely to offer little solace in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s remarkable and contentious finish.
Red Bull’s Sergio Perez dropped out of the race late on while running third, giving Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz the final podium berth of the season and ensuring the Spaniard finished ahead of team-mate Charles Leclerc, who was in 10th, in the season standings after his first year at the Scuderia.
AlphaTauri finished in fine fourth and fifth places with Yuki Tsunoda, achieving the best result of his up-and-down rookie season, ahead of Pierre Gasly.
Abu Dhabi GP result: Top 10
1) Max Verstappen, Red Bull
2) Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes
3) Carlos Sainz, Ferrari
4) Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri
5) Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri
6) Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes
7) Lando Norris, McLaren
8) Fernando Alonso, Alpine
9) Esteban Ocon, Alpine
10) Charles Leclerc, Ferrari
▪︎Verstappen’s ‘miracle’ arrives as Mercedes angered by controversial finish
“The pace of the Mercedes is just too strong today. We’re going to need a miracle to turn this around.”
The resigned-sounding words of Red Bull boss Christian Horner from the pit wall to Sky F1 with 10 laps of the race to go with Hamilton enjoying a lead of 10s over Verstappen.
Five laps later and that ‘miracle’ suddenly and unexpectedly arrived.
Running towards the back of the field, Latifi lost control of his Williams rounding Turn 14 and slammed into the barriers. A Safety Car to clear away the broken car and debris was inevitable; it was duly called.
Holding track position, and with it the provisional title, Mercedes were never going to pit Hamilton and so the Briton continued on to follow the dispatched Safety Car.
But Red Bull had nothing to lose and so brought their man in for a new set of soft tyres.
With the whole field now running at slow speed behind the Safety Car, Verstappen re-joined still in second place but back behind five cars – Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel – which he had not long lapped.
On lap 56, the word feed showed the message from Race Control: “Lapped cars will not be allowed to overtake.”
In a conversation played out a lap later, Horner asked Masi “Why aren’t we getting these lapped cars out the way?” asked Horner to Masi, who replied: “Christian, just give me a second. My main big one is to get this incident clear.”
Midway around the penultimate lap and lapped runners were instructed to overtake the Safety Car, although only the five between the two title contenders. It was also signified that the race would restart for the 58th and final tour.
“Michael, this isn’t right!” said a disbelieving Toto Wolff.
▪︎How Hamilton seized the early lead from Verstappen
Almost inevitably in this of all seasons, the race had started with controversy on the very first lap.
Despite expectations that Verstappen would easily convert his hard-won pole into a first-corner lead due to the fact he was starting on faster tyres than Hamilton, it was the medium-shod Mercedes that got the better getaway and seized the initial advantage before the opening left-hander.
Verstappen was not going to let that go without a fight, however, and made a late lunge down the inside of Hamilton as they arrived at the new-look Turn Five hairpin. There was no contact between the cars this time, as Hamilton took evasive action and went right across the run-off area.
Although Verstappen stayed on track and Hamilton did not in this case, Masi was happy that Hamilton had effectively reset the previous gap on his return to the circuit and so could continue in the lead without penalty or the positions being inverted.
Hamilton then set about steadily opening his lead, with Verstappen’s soft tyres predictably going off sooner than Hamilton’s mediums. (SkySports)
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