'Crazy' street fight levels F1 championship: 2021 Saudi Arabian GP report


Lewis Hamilton emerged the winner from a dramatic, controversial and "crazy" battle with Max Verstappen at the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, which levels the title fight ahead of the final race

Lewis Hamilton lifts his trophy after winning the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

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2021 is going to go down in history as one of the great Formula 1 seasons, and we can safely say that even before the deciding race.

In fact, the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix itself crammed in enough drama and controversy to cover a full season. It was an utterly ridiculous race.

You could write a full book on the penultimate round, where Max Verstappen had a chance to win the championship but Lewis Hamilton looked the favourite for victory heading into the weekend. By the end of it all, bizarrely, both will be feeling a sense of relief that they now head to Abu Dhabi level on points.

The first ten laps are easily forgotten due to what followed. After concerns over Verstappen’s gearbox – unchanged by Red Bull despite his crash in Q3 – Hamilton got a solid launch from pole and Valtteri Bottas slotted in behind him. Verstappen remained third, and the Mercedes pair appeared to have the race under control.

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Behind, Charles Leclerc also stayed ahead of Sergio Perez, so the top five ran as they qualified, and Lando Norris moved up to sixth ahead of Esteban Ocon, Pierre Gasly and Daniel Ricciardo.

Ricciardo clearing Gasly and Antonio Giovinazzi taking tenth from Fernando Alonso was about as exciting as it got, until Mick Schumacher replicated Leclerc’s FP2 crash and ended up spinning into the barrier at Turn 22. Cue the safety car.

Most cars were past the pit entry, but at the end of the following lap both Mercedes cars came in, with Bottas having backed Verstappen up to create a gap for the double-stack. And Verstappen stayed out in a move that would soon prove crucial.

Mick Schumacher crashed into the barriers during the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix

Mick Schumacher crash triggered the first red flag of the race

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Leclerc, Perez, Norris and Alonso also stopped, but were left rueing their luck when the race was red-flagged three laps later in order to carry out barrier repairs.

Those who had stayed out got a free pit stop, and so Verstappen inherited the lead on fresh hard tyres ahead of Hamilton, Bottas, Ocon and Ricciardo. Hamilton was not happy, but there was a standing restart that offered an opportunity he immediately tried to take.

Hamilton got the better launch but Verstappen cut Turn 2 trying to hold on around the outside, with Ocon sneaking into second place on the exit as the two title rivals fought. The rest of the field only made it one further corner before Leclerc, Perez and Gasly failed to make it through Turn 3, as the Ferrari was squeezed against the wall and Perez ended up in the barrier after contact.

Max Verstappen passes Lewis Hamilton at the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Verstappen passed Hamilton off-track at the first restart and handed back the place after the race was stopped again

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Behind, George Russell hit his brakes in response to the crashing Red Bull and Nikita Mazepin ploughed into the back of him at high speed, but both were fortunately unhurt.

Cue another red flag. And the start of the controversy.

FIA race director Michael Masi offered Red Bull two options: give the position back to Hamilton (and drop to third as a result) or let the stewards rule on the restart incident. Red Bull took the former option and put medium tyres on Verstappen’s car, but despite not getting as good a restart as Ocon and Hamilton on the front row, Verstappen still sent it down the inside into Turn 1 to take the lead.

Lewis Hamilton hits Esteban Ocon at the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton was squeezed at the second restart, making contact with Ocon’s Alpine and allowing Verstappen into the lead

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Hamilton’s front wing touched Ocon but stayed strong, and he soon dispatched the Alpine and set off after Verstappen.

The chase was punctuated by multiple virtual safety car interruptions, the first after Yuki Tsunoda lost his front wing hitting Sebastian Vettel at Turn 2, and the second when Vettel ran wide alongside Kimi Raikkonen and broke the Alfa Romeo’s front wing as well. Debris called for the VSC, and one came at the perfect time for Hamilton.

While the Red Bull had the upper hand in the first sector thanks to a higher-downforce set-up, Mercedes could hit back on the straighter sections in the last two sectors. And after Hamilton closed up, one VSC came with the pair starting the lap and ended with them clear of sector one.

Yuki Tsunoda hits Sebastian Vettel in the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Tsunoda was penalised for spearing into Vettel

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That meant Hamilton was close enough to use DRS and attack down the outside into Turn 1 as the pair crossed the line to start lap 37. In a movie we’ve seen before, Verstappen braked as late as possible and both ended up off the track but continued.

“He had the run, a bit like Brazil, and of course I braked late and I got a little bit off line at one point and had a moment and went wide,” Verstappen said. “But he didn’t also make the corner and we both basically missed the corner and I don’t think it’s fair to then just say that I get a penalty, but it is what it is.”

Max Verstappen overtakes Lewis Hamilton off track in the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Taking the lead off-track cost Verstappen a 5sec penalty

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Hamilton was unhappy at Verstappen’s approach, having felt he was once again the driver who had to avoid a collision between the two.

“I don’t think I’ve changed the way that I race,” Hamilton said.“I think we’ve seen multiple incidents this year, even Brazil where we’re supposed to do our racing on the track in between the white lines, and the rules haven’t been clear from the stewards that those things have been allowed, so that’s continued. From my understanding, I know I can’t overtake someone and go off the track and then keep the position. That’s well known between us drivers. It doesn’t apply to one of us I guess.”

Only, on this occasion, it did apply. Verstappen was told to give the position back or receive a penalty. But Red Bull told him to do so “strategically”, and so the championship leader slowed on the run to the final corner.

His thinking was that if Hamilton overtook him before Turn 27, Verstappen would get DRS on the next straight to try and regain the place. But Hamilton knew it, so slowed himself to stay behind. In the strange game of cat and mouse, Verstappen then hit the brakes and Hamilton ran into the back of him, breaking part of that front wing that held up so well earlier on.

Lewis Hamilton hit Max Verstappen in the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

The title rivals clash again: Hamilton misread the moment Verstappen slowed to let him past

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“At one point they told me I had to give the position back so that was I think just before (Turn) 22,” Verstappen said. “So then after 22/23 I went to drive to the right side and I slowed down, I was braking, downshifting, and he just stayed super close behind me and I don’t really understand why.

“I was just trying to let him by and I’m just going slower and slower and pulling the downshift, we had a miscommunication and he ran into the back of me, that was it.”

Hamilton’s view was, unsurprisingly, quite different. Calling Verstappen “f***ing crazy” at the time, he said the move was dangerous afterwards.

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“It really wasn’t clear. There were two scenarios, one it wasn’t clear and two I didn’t get the information. Then it became apparent that he was trying to let me past, which I guess he had been asked to do, but before the DRS zone. That meant he would’ve DRS’d back past, follow me through the last corner and then DRS me into Turn 1.

“So that was a tactic. But the worst part was just the steep, heavy braking that then happened at one point, which is when we collided. That was the dangerous part.”

Verstappen accelerated away and was hit with a five-second time penalty for the Turn 1 incident as he hadn’t given the place up, something he was left angry at. But Hamilton would soon close in and the Red Bull again yielded at the same place, this time without contact.

Damaged front wing of Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes after the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Hamilton made it past Verstappen despite a damaged front wing

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“[The race was] confusing!” said Verstappen. “Third, starting first. Dropped to third, third to first, five second penalty, second, finished second, touches, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t agree with all the decisions but I also don’t want to talk about it too much as I don’t think we need to talk about it, they don’t deserve any mentions.”

Hamilton already held the fastest lap but kept pushing and secured it despite his broken front wing, with bits falling off his endplate in the closing stages. At that point, a puncture could have handed Verstappen the title, but instead maximum points for the defending champion after over two hours of racing leaves them level on points ahead of Abu Dhabi.

“It’s definitely an incredibly tense year and time,” Hamilton said. “I’ve raced for 28 years, I’ve had so many intense battles through karting, through single-seaters and this is one of them. Of course this is the pinnacle of the sport so everything is heightened, everything is at the absolute max and so much weighs on it. It’s great for the sport, great for the fans, they’re enjoying it more than ever, I’m enjoying it as a racing driver.”

Lewis Hamilton races through the lights at the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Hamilton capped the victory with fastest lap

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Before being handed a ten-second time penalty for causing the collision with Hamilton before the final corner, Verstappen had similar sentiments.

“I find it interesting that I am the one who gets the penalty when both of us run out of the white lines,” Verstappen said.“In Brazil it was fine and now suddenly I get a penalty for it. Well you could clearly see both didn’t make the corner. It’s fine, I don’t spend too much time on it, we move forward.

“We are equal on points and that’s exciting for the whole championship and F1 in general. But lately we are talking more about white lines and penalties than actually proper Formula 1 racing and that’s a little bit of a shame.”

But the drama didn’t end there. Bottas had locked up massively on one of the restarts and dropped to fifth, and took his time clearing Ricciardo before honing in on Ocon. The Alpine driver looked to have held on for a hard-fought podium but Bottas played an excellent tactical final lap to get close out of the final corner and win a drag race by 0.1sec at the line.

Bottas Wolff and Hamilton celebrate after the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Bottas secured his podium place by 0.1sec from Ocon, giving Mercedes boss Toto Wolff two cars in the top three

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“Definitely it was an exciting finish, it was really close,” Bottas said. “To be honest, it was harder to get by him today than I thought it would be. He was driving pretty good today and was actually quite fast, and, also, before that, I was stuck behind Daniel for a long time, which made me consume my tyres quite a lot.

“Actually, my front right tyre was pretty finished and that make it more tricky. Once I dropped down to P5 at the final start, I knew it was all going to be about being patient to eventually getting there when it would, eventually, be possible. It was a bit closer than I thought, but I made it!”

Ocon was left close to tears by seeing such an impressive result slip away, having been surprised by how aggressive both Hamilton and Verstappen were with him on the race restart. But he still kept Ricciardo comfortably at bay, with Gasly rounding out the top six after staying out of trouble.

Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz in the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Leclerc (here running behind Sainz) eventually won the battle of Ferraris

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Leclerc took seventh from his Ferrari team-mate Carlos Sainz on the final lap, while Giovinazzi and Norris rounded out the points, with the McLaren driver rueing the first red flag stoppage.

But with the greatest respect, they’re all footnotes in an incredible race at the end of an incredible season. And now we’ve got to decide who comes out on top once and for all next weekend in Abu Dhabi.