Abu Dhabi: Max Verstappen became the first Dutchman ever to win the Formula One world championship title when he won a dramatic season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix yesterday, leaving Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes shell-shocked.
Just as it seemed Hamilton was heading for his eighth world title, Verstappen took advantage of a crash by Nicholas Latifi that effectively set up a one-lap dash for the title.
Verstappen and Hamilton, who began the race level on points, started that lap wheel to wheel but the 24-year-old Red Bull driver pulled away to take the chequered flag.
It was a compelling end to a championship for the ages, played out over 22 spell-binding acts.
Hamilton had been coasting towards bettering Michael Schumacher’s seven world crowns, prompting Red Bull team principal Christian Horner to say: “We need a miracle.”
It came in the unlikely shape of Latifi, who crashed his Williams, with Verstappen promptly pitting for fresh tyres.
When racing resumed for the 58th and closing lap at the Yas Marina Circuit Verstappen barged past Hamilton to take the chequered flag, sparking joy on the Red Bull pitwall and fury at Mercedes.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff later lodged an appeal over the result, claiming the rules governing safety car procedures had been breached.
But the stewards rejected both the appeals. “The FIA Stewards have dismissed Mercedes’ protests against the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix final classification,” Formula 1 said on its official Twitter feed.
While the stewards considered that protest, Verstappen was revelling in his new status as world champion.
“It’s insane,” he said. “My goal when I was little was to be a Formula One driver. You dream of podiums and victories. But when they tell you that you are world champion, it’s incredible.”
Magnanimous in defeat
Hamilton was magnanimous in defeat, embracing his nemesis and saying: “Congratulations to Max and his team”.
The 36-year-old Briton added: “We gave it everything this last part of the season and never gave up, that’s the most important thing.”
The deposed champion’s father Anthony was then seen congratulating both Verstappen and the freshly minted champion’s father Jos, himself a former F1 driver.
Verstappen and Hamilton had approached the winner-takes-all denouement in the desert level on points. It was the first time two title rivals had been in that position since 1974 when Emerson Fittipaldi and Clay Regazzoni were neck and neck going into the final race.
Fittingly the title protagonists filled the front row, Verstappen on pole after a flying lap in qualifying. But Hamilton got off to a blinding start, beating Verstappen to the first bend.
Lightning pit stop
The Dutch driver lunged to reclaim the lead on Turn Seven, forcing his arch-rival off the track.
The Briton rejoined in front, but the race stewards controversially decided no investigation was necessary, sparking incredulity in the Red Bull enclosure.
“We’re a little bit shocked,” said Horner. “That is incredible, what are they doing here?” Verstappen complained over the team radio.
After a dozen laps Hamilton had pulled over five seconds clear of Verstappen, struggling for pace on softs.
The Dutchman pitted on lap 14, rejoining in fifth.
Mercedes, with the luxury now of copying Red Bull’s strategy, then boxed Hamilton for a lightning pit stop.
He came back also on hard tyres in second, behind Sergio Perez, with the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz ahead of Verstappen, who soon had the Spaniard’s measure.
Perez then showed himself the ultimate teammate, frustrating Hamilton’s numerous attempts to overtake, allowing Verstappen to cut the gap.
Hamilton finally hit the front, with Perez ceding his place to Verstappen.
“Checo is a legend,” said an appreciative Verstappen on team radio.
At midway, with night falling, Kimi Raikkonen’s race ended, the 2007 world champion emerging from his Alfa Romeo and into retirement after a record 249 races.
Back on the track the gap between the leaders was four seconds, and growing lap by lap as the Mercedes’ speed superiority came into play.
A virtual safety car on lap 36 saw Verstappen pit for a fresh set of shoes on his Red Bull.
“Bit of a risk to leave me out?” Hamilton, 17 seconds clear, asked his team, the champion worried about becoming a sitting duck on his older tyres.
But just when it looked like Hamilton would emerge victorious, this magical season still had one last trick up its sleeve, leaving a gifted and pugnacious Belgian-born Dutchman to be crowned a worthy world champion.