ABU DHABI – The most dramatic Formula One season in years ended, of course, in one of the most dramatic finishes possible when Max Verstappen snatched the world championship away from Lewis Hamilton with a pass on the final lap of the Abu Dhabi GP.
Mercedes filed two protests after the race, which were dismissed more than four hours after the race and Verstappen's first world championship was upheld.
Hamilton led 51 of the 58 laps and was only five trips around Yas Marina Circuit away from passing Michael Schumacher in the record books with an eighth championship Sunday. Then a crash gave Verstappen and Red Bull one final chance.
Whatever Hamilton said over his radio when Nicholas Latifi's spin into the wall brought out the safety car was only replayed as one long bleep to cover the expletives.
F1 race director Michael Masi took his time figuring out how to conclude the race before controversially settling on one final lap of racing to decide the title. Verstappen started the final lap just behind Hamilton, chasing him through the first four turns.
Verstappen made his pass on the fifth turn and Hamilton had one last shot. He pulled his Mercedes even with the Red Bull in turn nine but couldn't clear Verstappen, who surged ahead to become the first Dutch world champion.
Verstappen and Red Bull celebrated in a champagne soak, received hugs from his fellow competitors — including Hamilton and Hamilton's father — and made his way to the DJ 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 as they exited the circuit.
“It's just insane, I mean, my goal when I was little was to become a Formula One driver and to go for wins, to be on the podium,” said Verstappen. “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.”
Verstappen, the only F1 winner to compete under the Dutch flag, was congratulated on Twitter by Prime Minister Mark Rutte. He said the win was a “A historic day for Dutch sport.”
It was a fitting end to a season that saw the two contenders go wheel-to-wheel over 22 races spanning four continents and arrive in Abu Dhabi tied in the championship standings. It marked the first time the contenders were equal at the season finale since 1974.
The two combined for 18 of the victories, with Verstappen winning 10 times — equaling the number of wins scored over his first six seasons in F1. Verstappen led an F1-high 652 of the 1,211 laps this year and scored 18 podium finishes.
But he's been criticized this year over his aggressive driving with Hamilton himself saying Verstappen was over the edge. The two crashed three times this season and Verstappen was sent to the hospital for evaluation following one incident at Silverstone.
Verstappen had complained all weekend that 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 favor with the final one lap of racing to decide the title.
“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 post-race 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, won three consecutive races coming into the finale 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.”
The bitter rivalry between Mercedes and Red Bull got the ending it deserved — one that left the victor almost speechless.
“Oh my God!” Verstappen screamed over his radio as he crossed the finish line.
“You are the world champion! The world champion!” screamed back Red Bull boss Christian Horner.
“Let's do this for another 10 or 15 years!” Verstappen replied.
Red Bull won its first F1 title since 2013; Mercedes had won every championship since.
The mood was far different in the Mercedes camp, where Hamilton sat motionless in his car for several moments as other drivers made their way to congratulate Verstappen. The defeat ended his reign of four consecutive titles and denied Hamilton a chance to pass Schumacher as best all-time in F1.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff was incredulous on the radio, demanding “the last lap be reinstated.”
“Toto, it’s called a motor race," Masi tersely replied. "We want 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 former F1 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 savored 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 season.
“With my dad, traveling 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,” said Verstappen.
Mission accomplished and Red Bull celebrated by playing “We are the Champions” in its garage.
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