Sports

The ending to the F1 season was impossible


Max Verstappen (aloft) won it all under the strangest of circumstances.

Max Verstappen (aloft) won it all under the strangest of circumstances.
Photo: Getty Images

It’s the kind of ending to any contest that feels scripted (and Mercedes might yet claim that it actually was scripted). It’s the thing you’d reenact in your living room when you’re a kid. Then, it’s not just the final AB in the bottom of the ninth. It’s the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 after coming back from a 5-0 deficit in Game 4 to kickstart a comeback from 3-0 down in the series (pipe down, Red Sox fans). In the confines of your imagination, anything is possible.

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But in the actual world, we never see this kind of thing. There are Game 7s. The odd 3-0 comeback. OT in decisive games. Miracle finishes. But really, how many homers do you remember that ended a series? Joe Carter? Or overtime goals or buzzer-beaters that win a championship in Game 7 or the Super Bowl? Vince Young? Boise State in The Fiesta Bowl didn’t clinch a championship. Kawhi Leonard was only in the second round. Even Jordan’s iconic jumper still left time on the clock. And that seemed an unreal ending, an intervention by a higher power to provide something iconic.

The Formula 1 season got that ending at the last race of the season, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, though in controversial and weird circumstances that may take a while to see out. Sure, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen are so far ahead of the competition, and their teams Mercedes and Red Bull along with them, that the world championship coming down to the last race isn’t that unlikely. They were always the two massive favorites, while not having enough of an advantage to separate from each other that much for that long.

Still, coming down to the last race doesn’t happen every year. It required Hamilton to win the last three races, when nothing less would have done. It required Mercedes switching out its engine a month ago and the penalties that came along with it. And the prelude continued to build in Abu Dhabi yesterday, as they qualified No. 1 (Verstappen) and 2 (Hamilton) for the race.

And with these two at each other’s throats the whole season, we didn’t have to wait long for more controversy between them. It wasn’t even one lap. As soon as the lights went out, Hamilton zoomed past Verstappen. At Turn 6, Verstappen attempted to take the lead back, which forced Hamilton off the track. At least that’s what Hamilton and Mercedes would tell you. Hamilton then basically cut the corner to remain ahead of Verstappen.

This has happened a couple times between the two, but this time race officials didn’t make Hamilton give up the place. It seemed curious. Red Bull and Verstappen would have a different word for it.

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And for the rest of the race — pretty much all of it except the last lap — Hamilton dominated the race. His lead grew to as much as 16 seconds. Red Bull and Verstappen changed course and pitted for a second time with about 18 laps to go, in the hopes that they could eat into Hamilton’s lead lap-by-lap while Hamilton’s tires wore away. But they didn’t come close to making up enough time

And then…well, Verstappen might call it divine intervention, or even karma from the first lap incident. Hamilton might call it the cruelty of the gods. It was the only thing that could have made the race competitive. It was Nicholas Latifi, miles from the leaders, crashing into the wall. Which led to a safety car coming out and pausing the race essentially for a few laps. But it wasn’t even that simple.

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Verstappen pitted again to get even more fresh tires, which Hamilton could not do as he had caught the safety car. Even if he did, he would have come out behind Verstappen. Or Verstappen wouldn’t have pitted at all. Or Mercedes calculated the race would finish under yellow flags. So many things could have, or should have, or would have happened, it’s impossible to get a grip on.

But that wasn’t it. As the end of the safety car approached, it seemed that the cars Hamilton had lapped but Verstappen had yet to would not be allowed to pass Hamilton and the safety car at the restart of the race. That’s usually the custom, so as to give no one an advantage. The broadcast was remarking how unusual it was for them to not be allowed to pass. Both Verstappen and Red Bull chief Christian Horner were furious on their radios, with Horner unleashing on the officials. Even with his fresh tires, having five cars to pass in one lap before even reaching Hamilton would have been too much.

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And then suddenly, the lapped cars were overtaking Hamilton and the safety car. And the safety car was pulling into the pits, not completing one more lap after the lapped cars clear, which is the normal way. The normal way would have meant the race finished under yellow flags. But instead, the restart was flung upon Hamilton. Verstappen was nestling up right behind Hamilton before the restart. And it was Mercedes screaming into their radios. The broadcast was at a loss for words.

One lap to decide it all.

Except it was already decided. Verstappen with barely touched tires had a huge advantage on Hamilton, running on tires that had 30+ laps in them already. Verstappen was passing Hamilton barely feet into the last lap. Hamilton made one stab but couldn’t get past. And then it was over. Max Verstappen, world champion.

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This may not be over. While Mercedes’s initial protest was dismissed, they have said they will appeal. You can imagine this getting to court before it’s all said and done.

It’s hard to comprehend all that went into making this ending. The most decorated driver in the history of the sport finally being looked in the eye by a young driver tipped for greatness since he showed up. Two teams so superlative that no one else can touch them. The twists and turns of the F1 season, with a crash here and there or an odd decision from the FAI keeping them in touching distance of each other. Hamilton winning three straight races to tie with one race to go. Latifi crashing at that moment to erase the gap. One lap later and the race finishes under caution and Hamilton has his fifth-straight world championship. The decisions to pit or not pit.

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Sometimes your childhood living room does come to life.

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