“The pace of the Mercedes is just too strong. Max is driving his heart out out there… but…”

Christian Horner, the Red Bull team boss, pauses. With ten laps to go, Lewis Hamilton is 13 seconds ahead of Max Verstappen. Whoever wins the race will win the championship. It’s not over till it’s over but, well, it’s over. Horner can scarcely pretend otherwise.

“…we’re going to need a miracle in these last 10 laps to turn it around,” he sighs. This bromide is all he can muster. Like an alcoholic desperately promising that they will change their ways, he is clutching at straws. No one believes that Horner’s miracle is on its way, not even himself.

With a quiet end to the race, the commentators start to reflect on the season; the moments that made Hamilton the winner and Verstappen the loser.

Then, with five laps to go, Nicholas Latifi tries to overtake Mick Schumacher. Schumacher nudges Latifi off the track, making his tyres dirty. The stakes are so low – these drivers are last and second last in the race – that no one notices. Not until Latifi, three corners later, still struggling for grip on his dirty tyres, smashes into the wall.

SAFETY CAR DEPLOYED.

Verstappen pits for fresh tyres, coming out still in second. Hamilton does not.

The cars are now bunched up behind the safety car and Hamilton’s 13-second gap has evaporated in an instant.

The race restarts with one lap to go.

The commentators are discussing where in the lap Verstappen might try a move – perhaps towards the end. Suddenly, the Dutchman takes them all by surprise and well before the straights he just goes for it! He is a long way back but the gap is there and his fresh tyres give him more confidence in the braking zone. He makes it. This is incredible. Hamilton tries to come back at him but to no avail.

Verstappen takes the race – and the championship – on the last lap.

***

I break from writing this article to meet my friend in town for a catch-up and cheeky Diet Coke. She knows me too well to grumble at the fact that I spend the first twenty minutes talking about the race. But when the subject changes, a balding man on the table next to us puts down his tablet, leans over, and thanks me for explaining the drama that has just unfolded in Abu Dhabi. He clarifies that he had not listened to our entire conversation, though I’d have been honoured if he had. Anyway, this is unusual because Formula One rarely cuts through in the public mind in the way this last race did.

Verstappen’s victory touched a wider audience partly because it was the end of a truly unforgettable season. Hamilton and Verstappen raced wheel-to-wheel almost every weekend, producing images that will define the sport for decades to come. It was the first time in 47 years that the two title contenders entered the final race equal on points. If Verstappen won, he would bring an end to Mercedes’ seven-year domination; if Hamilton won, he would claim a record-breaking eighth world championship.

But it also cut through to the general public because of a controversial decision taken by the race director, Michael Masi. When a safety car comes out, the cars slow down, bunch up, and are not allowed to overtake. This means that cars follow the safety car not according to their order in the race, but their order on the track. Cars that are a lap down therefore split up the front-runners. Although lapped cars must let the lead cars past when the race resumes, they inevitably disturb the front runners. The regulations therefore allow the race director to let the lapped cars pass the safety car and unlap themselves before the racing resumes.

However, when the safety car was introduced after the Latifi crash, the race director initially said that lapped cars would not be able to overtake. Red Bull lobbied him on the radio to reverse this decision. He did, directing that only lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen – five of the eight total lapped cars – should overtake. They did so on the penultimate lap, and the safety car came in at the end of that lap, allowing for one final lap of racing.

Mercedes argue that this breached Article 48.12 of the Formula One Sporting Regulations in two ways. Firstly, the article states that “any cars that have been lapped by the leader will be required to pass the cars on the lead lap and the safety car”. It was unprecedented to allow only some of the lapped cars to overtake, and worrying to think that Red Bull influenced that decision. Secondly, the article states that “once the last lapped car has passed the leader the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap.” In this case, it returned at the end of the same lap.

Red Bull disagree, arguing that as per Article 15.3, the race director has “overriding authority” over “the use of the safety car”. They also point out that earlier in the race, Mercedes had lobbied Masi to not bring out a safety car for another stricken car.

Mercedes’ protest was rejected by the stewards and the team has withdrawn its appeal. But the controversy remains. Hamilton and Toto Wolff, their Team Principal, are boycotting the prizegiving ceremony.

Some see Mercedes as archetypal bad losers, firing the latest salvo in a season-long rules-based squabble with Red Bull. Indeed, just a few races ago, Red Bull complained about Hamilton’s rear wing – leading to his disqualification from qualifying – because it was 0.2 millimetres too wide on the edges. Mercedes were represented in the post-race hearings by Paul Harris QC – the lawyer who got Manchester City out of their Champions League ban in 2020. This was a team that was primed to protest.

But Mercedes certainly have a right to feel aggrieved. If all the lapped cars were allowed to overtake, then the safety car might not have come in before the end of the race, meaning Hamilton would have won. Perhaps Mercedes had calculated that there would not be enough time to clear away the crash damage and let all the lapped cars pass, so did not pit Hamilton for new tyres, which would have put him behind Verstappen but with a fighting chance of an overtake if the racing did resume. And if none of the lapped cars were allowed to overtake, then Verstappen would not have been able to catch Hamilton on the last lap.

Whatever he had decided, Masi would have been lambasted. Letting the lapped cars overtake benefitted Verstappen; not letting them do so would have benefitted Hamilton. However, U-turning about whether they could overtake, and disregarding precedent by only letting some of them do so, do not help his case. His decisions were at best inconsistent.

Moreover, Masi was under siege well before Abu Dhabi. In Sao Paulo, Mercedes criticised him for treating Hamilton’s rear wing as an illegality worthy of disqualification instead of a fault that needed fixing. In Jeddah, he raised eyebrows by entering into a negotiation with Red Bull about what Verstappen should do to avoid a penalty. And Mercedes and Red Bull have both been unhappy with his decisions not to investigate on-track misdemeanors. Some compare him unfavourably to his predecessor, Charlie Whiting, who did the job for more than two decades before his sudden death in 2019. But some of the criticism is unfair: he is dealing with extraordinary circumstances, and his methods seem novel partly because radio calls with the race director have never previously been broadcast. 

***

Beyond the legalistic arguments, the old adage remains as true as ever: a championship is won not over one race, but over the whole season. Although Hamilton deserved to win the race, I think Verstappen deserved to win the championship.

Of course, Verstappen was arrogant and hot-headed at times. Not checking on Hamilton after their frightful crash in Monza, jinking towards him at the last minute in Jeddah, and giving him the middle finger in a practice session in Texas while calling him a “stupid idiot”, are reminders that he still needs to mature on and off the track. And Hamilton put in some stellar performances – notably at Sao Paulo, winning after his disqualification from qualifying.  

But Verstappen lost several podiums through bad luck: a late-race puncture in Baku, damage caused by Bottas at the start in Budapest, and a crash with Hamilton at Silverstone. It is telling that Verstappen claimed 10 pole positions this year compared to Hamilton’s five, and the Dutchman led more than 600 laps, compared to fewer than 300 by Hamilton. It must also not be forgotten that his last lap overtake was by no means a straightforward manoeuvre. It was spectacular.

Perhaps it was the only fitting way for this crazy season to end. And the symmetry with the circumstances of Hamilton’s maiden triumph is striking. This year, Hamilton lost the championship on the last lap of the last race. Back in 2008, Hamilton won his first on the last lap of the last race. His rival, Felipe Massa, had already started celebrating.

***

Christian Horner bellows down the team radio: “Max Verstappen, YOU ARE THE WORLD CHAMPION! THE WORLD CHAMPION!”

11 years ago, he delivered those same words, at the same track, to another Red Bull driver who had just become world champion. But they sound a little different this time: rawer, and maybe a little slurred, coming from a man who is no longer in the bloom of youth.

And perhaps this time, the second “world champion” was a reminder less for the driver than for himself. He couldn’t believe it. Against all the odds, he had got his miracle.

Image Credits: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/max-fold-formula-one-run-formula-1-6815944/

Jacob Reid

Jacob writes a column about Formula One for The Blue. He is from Cumbria and studies PPE at Lady Margaret Hall. He enjoys jokes and watching cars drive around in circles but dislikes writing about himself in the third person.