Max Verstappen secured his first Formula One world championship with victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. After a tense and highly controversial season decider at Yas Marina he beat his title rival Lewis Hamilton into second on the very last lap of the season after the pair had gone into the race level on points.
It was once more a straight head-to-head battle between the two at the front but where Verstappen and Red Bull proved to have the edge at the very death, leaving their rivals furious.
Verstappen’s first title comes in his seventh season in F1, although he is still only 24 years old. He is the first Dutchman to have won the F1 world championship. Having become the youngest driver in the history of the sport on his debut aged 17 in 2015, Verstappen has the potential to go on and win many more.
He is a more mature, complete driver now, his youthful excesses largely curbed and his judgment more circumspect although he remains an aggressively confrontational driver, uncompromising with his elbows as Hamilton discovered this season.
This year he has taken 10 wins, delivering some relentlessly confident and controlled drives for some dominant victories. That he did so on the first time he has been in a championship fight is hugely impressive. He was unbowed and unintimidated going up against the seven-time champion Hamilton, supremely confident in his own ability to do so. His appetite to race, to compete, is fierce and he will be expectant of adding more titles to his tally.
Victory this year, his greatest achievement, was made all the more
remarkable such has been the level of competition from Hamilton who was competing at the top of his game in what has been his toughest fight of his career. Verstappen has had to weather a rollercoaster to bring it home. He lost a 32-point lead in the space of two races in Britain and Hungary but has fought back with relentless determination.
Their relationship, initially one of mutual respect, has deteriorated as the intensity has grown and the accusations between teams have flown, growing increasingly fractious and has ended on similar notes in Abu Dhabi. This was a conflict fought on may fronts, a maelstrom with the two drivers locked in a battle of wills at its heart.
Hamilton made an explosive start from second on the grid, grabbing the lead into turn one, despite being on the slower medium tyres. It was a mighty start but Verstappen immediately came back at him at the turn-six chicane and dived up the inside. Hamilton was squeezed off by the move and retained the lead by cutting the chicane to avoid contact.
Verstappen believed he should give the place back, Hamilton was inevitably convinced he had been forced wide. It was the season’s turbulent battles in microcosm but the stewards decided no investigation was necessary, deeming Verstappen had forced Hamilton off and that Hamilton then backed off the lead he had gained. Red Bull were aggrieved and the move did seem a reasonable and bold attempt to pass. The issue being that consistency over similar decisions from the stewards has been lacking in recent races but racing continued.
Hamilton opened up a two-second gap by lap eight as they settled into a rhythm leaving the rest of the field behind. Verstappen was struggling with his tyres and Hamilton took a 5sec lead on his more durable rubber. The Dutchman pitted on lap 14 to take the hard rubber and Mercedes matched the stop to avoid the undercut a lap later, also taking the hard tyres and he emerged still 5sec clear.
Hamilton caught the leader, Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez who had yet to pit, on lap 20. Red Bull hoped the Mexican would hold him up and Pérez defended brilliantly through a series of corners, refusing to yield and coming back on Hamilton each time he passed. It was bravura, nail-biting stuff and Hamilton could not find a way through for over a lap. Finally he made it stick at turn six but Pérez had done the job as Verstappen closed to within 2sec of the leader.
Yet the Mercedes race pace was formidable and Hamilton began once more eking out a lead of almost 4sec up by lap 27. Red Bull could not make an impression on the Mercedes with Hamilton comfortable out front. The virtual safety car was called on lap 35 and a lap later and Red Bull faced with making no inroads had to take the chance of pitting their man. Mercedes left Hamilton out to maintain track position, leaving the Dutchman with fresh tyres to attack for 20 laps.
When racing resumed Hamilton had a lead of 17sec with Verstappen out to hunt him down after both teams had taken their final roll of the dice. Verstappen pushed hard and took some time out but Hamilton was able to maintain good pace despite his used rubber. The gap came down to 14sec by lap 43 but he was not clawing enough back.
Yet in season marked by high drama there was one final twist. A late crash for Williams’s Nicholas Latifi brought the safety car out on lap 53. Red Bull immediately pitted Verstappen for fresh tyres but Mercedes left Hamilton out to once more maintain track position. Hamilton’s reaction was a stream of invective at his bad luck.
Then with the FIA having announced lapped cars could not overtake to move them out of the way, they gave the cars between Hamilton and Verstappen permission to do so – a very controversial decision. It left one lap of racing on the restart, a sudden-death single-lap shootout between the pair and Verstappen’s fresh tyres paid off as he passed for the lead at turn five to take the place and the win. Hamilton tried to come back at him but was left disconsolate with his team feeling they had been hard done by.