After a nine-month 22-round season, the FIA Formula One World Championship ended today with Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit in the United Arab Emirates. For only the second time in the championship’s history, two drivers started the season’s final race equal on points atop the Drivers’ Championship standings.
Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton hoped to win an unprecedented eighth F1 World Championship. Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen hoped to win his first championship. Verstappen went to the race with a slight edge as he won pole position in qualifying over his Mercedes rival. However, Hamilton took the lead of the Grand Prix by the first corner. He was on the throttle only a quarter of a second after the start light went out, his fastest reaction time of the season.
Max Verstappen immediately fought back. He pulled ahead on the long straight to turn six but not clear of Hamilton. In turn six, the two championship contenders made slight contact as the Red Bull driver ran Hamilton off the racing surface. The Mercedes driver used the run-off area to escape and maintain his position. Despite pleas from Red Bull Racing, FIA race control ruled that no further investigation was necessary for Hamilton’s escape across the run-off area.
Lewis Hamilton extended his lead until both drivers pitted for hard compound tires. He rejoined the race second behind Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Pérez while Verstappen rejoined fifth. Pérez mounted a valiant defense of the lead. Verstappen closed the margin between himself and Hamilton by five seconds due to Pérez’s efforts.
On lap 35, Antonio Giovinazzi retired from his final grand prix with Alfa Romeo due to a technical failure, and the Virtual Safety Car was deployed. Mercedes kept Hamilton out on track during the VSC period while Red Bull pitted Verstappen for a fresh set of hard tires. This set up the race and championship-deciding pursuit with the Red Bull driver chasing down Lewis Hamilton with 20 laps remaining.
Verstappen gradually inched into the deficit until a safety car deployment drastically changed the field of play. On lap 53, Williams’ Nicholas Latifi lost control of his car at turn 14 and crashed into the outside wall. Red Bull pitted Verstappen for soft compound tires. He joined the safety car line with five lapped cars between himself and Hamilton. Race Director Michael Masi initially decided not to allow the lapped cars to unlap themselves. Then, he reversed this decision.
Only those five lapped cars, and not every car not on the lead lap, were allowed to overtake Hamilton and the safety car. Shortly after, the race was ordered to resume. A one-lap shootout decided the world championship with Max Verstappen on soft tires and Lewis Hamilton on aged hard tires. Hamilton never stood a chance. Verstappen easily overtook the Mercedes driver on the final lap to win the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and his first World Drivers’ Championship.
As Red Bull Racing and Max Verstappen celebrate their victory, questions surround the decisions made by FIA race control during the final safety car period that will carry on in the days and maybe even months to come.