MARTIN SAMUEL: Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen have been dancing ever closer and this was the dirtiest dance of all… It was Succession, Drive To Survive and Squid Game with a little bit of Wacky Races thrown in
- Lewis Hamilton edged Max Verstappen in Sunday’s thrilling Saudi Arabia GP
- Sunday’s race in new venue Jeddah saw the Formula One rivals collide yet again
- Hamilton crashed into Verstappen – who was told to let the Briton go ahead
- The race also saw two red flags, several virtual safety cars and many crashes
Here’s what’s great about Formula 1 this season. It’s not just Drive To Survive. It’s Drive To Survive, and Succession. And a little bit of Squid Game for good measure.
Drive To Survive? That part’s obvious. Have you seen the track in Jeddah? Succession is where the negotiations come into play; the offers, the double-dealing; the supposed hand of friendship or sportsmanship that really isn’t.
And Squid Game? Well, at the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, we had a number of different races within one big race, a few drivers were eliminated each time and then off we went again.
Lewis Hamilton (front) won Sunday’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix thriller at Max Verstappen’s (back) expense
The Jeddah contest was marred by a collision between the two Formula One title chasers
At the end of which, Lewis Hamilton won. Somehow. Not sure quite where. Part drive, part negotiation, part the mighty gladiatorial nature of the man.
This was his 103rd Grand Prix win, having collected 103 pole positions. There truly hasn’t been anyone quite like him. It leaves the most delicately-poised drivers’ championship in the history of F1.
Even Netflix haven’t got an equivalent of this contest right now. Indeed, who has? Remember when motor racing was dubbed the most boring sport in the world? Now it sells streaming numbers the way football sold satellite dishes.
And with good reason. Level on points, one race to go. Winner takes all in Abu Dhabi. First versus second, fifth versus six, the order of two drivers is all that matters and whoever leads win. And if neither Hamilton nor Max Verstappen finishes in the top 10, then it goes to the Dutchman on race victories in 2021.
Hamilton (right) and Verstappen (left) are now level going into next week’s final Abu Dhabi race
This, of course, raises the prospect of Toto Wolff’s doomsday scenario. Last month, he predicted that if one driver could win the title in the final race simply by taking out his rival – as Ayrton Senna famously did Alain Prost in 1990 – he would try that. The protagonists reacted in horror at the thought, but now? Of course, it’s possible.
All season, Hamilton and Verstappen have been dancing ever closer, and yesterday’s was arguably the dirtiest dance of all. From here, the ultimate sorry-not sorry collision is a distinct possibility. Nothing can be ruled out.
Whoever wins, whoever loses, neither driver is going quietly, and Hamilton acknowledged the danger in that. ‘For him, it does not matter if we both don’t finish but for me we both need to finish,’ he said.
The intensity of their rivalry is perhaps the greatest twist of all. When any athlete has dominated for as long as Lewis Hamilton, sporting instincts would traditionally favour the underdog, Verstappen.
The two Formula One rivals have shared an intense battle over this brilliant campaign
Yet this season, with Verstappen having won more races, with Mercedes considered to have the inferior car until a series of engine changes, and with Hamilton at one stage looking out of the running, if anything it is the seven-time champion that has the underdog aura.
Of course, a new name on the trophy would be good for the sport. Yet so would a record eighth title for a genuinely iconic driver. Hamilton won in Saudi Arabia wearing a rainbow-coloured helmet that presents a genuine challenge to authority and repressive ideologies in this region, and with his background remains an outlier in motor sport still.
Wolff said if he had to pick one accolade he would forego the constructors’ championship to be part of Hamilton passing Michael Schumacher, which is why the gradual erosion of Verstappen’s lead some months ago is perhaps not being greeted with the disappointment that would have been felt in previous seasons.
Even Toto Wolff (left) was animated during Sunday’s thrilling inaugural race in Jeddah
Abu Dhabi, mind, is not a circuit that lends itself to the lunacy witnessed here. They were three standing starts, including the one for which Hamilton qualified on pole, two crashes significant enough to stop the race, five cars that did not finish, and an accusation from Verstappen that like a big Champions League tie, this was ultimately decided on penalties.
Specifically, the one he received when told to let Hamilton pass after earlier cutting a corner to gain an unfair advantage. Instead of moving aside, Verstappen hit the brakes with Hamilton behind, and was mildly rear-ended. Ever upset the nutcase in the fast lane on the motorway? It was something like that.
Then he let Hamilton pass but at a tight corner where he had little chance of maintaining a lead, which Verstappen took back by the time the pair had exited.
A five second penalty occurred for the brake test, and finally, Hamilton got past because Verstappen’s tyres were dying on him. He didn’t have the tread to go for fastest lap, either. That’s what brought them level on 369.5 points. Inseparable even down to a decimal place.
Hamilton (right) eventually edged past Verstappen (left) to bring them level on 369.5 points
Yet a quick capsule review of this race doesn’t really tell the half of it. In between the many dramas on the track, there was even more off it, including a startlingly strange exchange between race director Michael Masi and the Red Bull team. It concerned the first restart when Verstappen was on pole but was beaten to the first turn by Hamilton. He regained advantage with a cut corner at turn two before the race was almost immediately red-flagged again for a crash behind.
‘I’m going to give you the opportunity to start from grid position two given what happened at Turn Two,’ said Masi. Red Bull felt they were pushed off. ‘Can you give us a moment to talk about it?’ Masi was asked.
‘Two minutes,’ he replied. ‘We would accept P2 on the basis Esteban Ocon’s on pole,’ said Red Bull sporting director Jonathan Wheatley. ‘We would drop you behind Hamilton – that is my offer,’ Masi clarified.
‘We’ll accept that,’ Wheatley decided. ‘We understand the order is Ocon, Hamilton, Verstappen.’ Mercedes took the deal, too.
The race saw five drivers drop out before its end, including Mick Schumacher (above)
Sunday’s Grand Prix saw two red flags, and three standing starts which saw even more drama
Yet what a way to run a sport; by committee. After 16 laps and two red flags, Verstappen was either in the wrong or not and, if he was, surely that’s for the race director or stewards to decide the punishment, not a basis for consultation with Verstappen’s team?
Equally, while when the race was suspended Ocon was indeed behind Verstappen with Hamilton in third, the only reason Ocon was second was because of Verstappen’s manoeuvre.
So, by Red Bull taking Masi’s offer, Verstappen had still found a way to demote Hamilton from first to second, even if he didn’t get to take full advantage.
How can that be? Does the defender who deliberately fouls an opponent get given the choice of a free-kick and a red card or a penalty and a booking? Does the batsman decide whether he made his ground, or the boxer have the final say on his fitness to continue. Who’s in charge here?
The final restart saw Esteban Ocon (right) start in front due to a battle involving the two rivals
So Succession and Drive To Survive and Squid Game and a little bit of Wacky Races thrown in. This circuit brought that out of them all, teams and many drivers, although Hamilton was by far the coolest. Prior to the race, the two major team principals, Wolff and Christian Horner, were asked their opinion of the Jeddah circuit, away from the cameras.
‘Dangerous,’ concluded Wolff. Horner wasn’t to be outdone. ‘F***ing dangerous,’ he said. The intimation was that the drivers were saying the same. An extraordinarily fast track with blind bends, coming into unexpected traffic, was the main complaint. Not that racers don’t like to race, just as fighters love to fight.
But some of F1’s roughest edges have been smoothed of late. It must have been a shock to come to a new track that was high speed, high octane and high wire.
Combined with adrenalin that would already be pumping given the fine balance in the championship race, no wonder elements of it reached new levels of craziness. With maybe more to come. Tune in next week.
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