The safety car gifted Verstappen the opportunity to get onto a fresh set of soft tyres with Hamilton obliged to be a potential restart sitting duck on ancient old hards. But would there be a restart? Would there be time for it, once the mess had been cleared? By lap 56, with two to go, it looked too late. Certainly, they would have run out of time if the usual protocol of letting the lapped cars unlap themselves had been followed. The sporting regulations say the safety car will come in the lap after this has happened, giving those unlapped cars the chance of getting to the back of the pack. But that would mean the safety car coming in just as the chequered flag was falling.
So could they restart with the lapped cars in place and race for one lap to the flag? Yes that’s not without precedent and initially that was what was announced by race control. But there were five lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen, which would have made things very difficult for the latter. Suddenly it was announced that those five cars could unlap themselves – and the safety car would be coming in on that lap. It made for an incredibly dramatic ending to this amazing season and Verstappen duly made his move into Turn 5 on the last lap, fended off a retaliating Hamilton down the next couple of straights, then pulled away to his first world championship. But it was a somewhat unconventional take on the regulations and not one which Mercedes believed to be correct.
The evening ended with protests to the stewards being heard and thrown out.
Sergio Perez was retired during the safety car as his engine was about to expire and the last thing Red Bull needed was an extension of the safety car period, thus promoting Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari to third. Those last few laps were either wildly exciting or farcical depending upon your viewpoint and perhaps who your favoured driver is. But before Latifi crunched the barriers and triggered the chaos, Hamilton had dominated the evening completely.
How so, when Verstappen had been so much faster in qualifying?
Essentially the Red Bull had a set-up which worked the rear tyres too hard but which gave it a sensationally good single lap balance in the cooling night time surface of Q3, enough to give Verstappen the confidence to reel off a truly stunning lap, helped also by a tow from team-mate Perez.
Up until that moment, Mercedes had looked much the faster car. Mercedes felt quite confident therefore in protecting the rear tyres for the demands of sector three where the rubber always tends to overheat, thereby reducing its useful range and impacting upon strategy.