Neither championship contender covered themselves in much glory on Sunday in Saudi Arabia.
Both Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen were filling the airwaves with complaint after complaint trying to drop the other into trouble, the F1 equivalent of crowding a referee on a football pitch.
There was a punishment dolled out by the man in charge but the impression on the global audience was that Michael Masi had lost control over a critical race in the world championship, leading to controversy not seen since Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher overstepped the boundaries in pursuit of titles.
Of course, all the calamities and questionable moves came after what would have been a spectacular qualifying effort from Verstappen. Riding the edge of the Jeddah Corniche Circuit walls perfectly, right up until he wasn’t, it was an immense display of a driver wringing out the very last drops of potential from within the cockpit.
Had he crossed the line, it may well have been one of the all-time great pole position laps. But his error at the final hurdle put us on a course the likes of which we have not seen for some time. It also gave way to Verstappen at his absolute unrelenting best, and perhaps his cynical and selfish worst.
As the seconds ticked away in the final qualifying session on Saturday, the cards were on the table: Mercedes had provisional pole after Lewis Hamilton finally found the soft tyres to his liking but it was Red Bull and Verstappen that were in the right place at the right time and his lap needed to be good.
Crossing the line with 45 seconds to go, the tension was palpable: this one lap could define the championship. A wide moment out of Turn 2 almost ended in disaster and had Fernando Alonso wincing as the rest of the paddock watched on, eyes glued to the television screens.
Another risk out of the Turn 13 hairpin as Verstappen got right up against the barriers on corner exit showed he was leaving nothing on the table. Two-tenths of a second up on Hamilton’s time through sector 2, it appeared as though he was on the way to his 10th pole of the year. Not so.
He could have taken it easy but that just isn’t the Verstappen modus operandi, it was all or nothing. A lock-up left him wide, a stomp on the throttle a frustrated response that ultimately cost him dearly, but it was captivating viewing.
His feel in the car, the mechanical sympathy that goes with it translates to incredible speed and he has learned it from a young age, drilled by father Jos on karting tracks.
“It’s what you practice already in go-karting,” Verstappen explained to F1.com at the beginning of the year. “Of course, you didn’t have wings, but you can simulate different type of things, right? That’s what my dad [taught]. Sometimes he would send me out, he would change something [on the kart], but he wouldn’t tell me what, and then I had to feel what it was doing.”
That hot lap though was scintillating when the pressures were at their highest. A lap that deserved to be finished off, Verstappen showed he had the measure of F1’s best qualifier of all-time until the final hurdle.
His hopes of victory weren’t over though.
Verstappen was leading by the first red flag of the night, having stayed out under the safety car, unlike both Mercedes cars. Hamilton got his nose ahead at the restart but Verstappen cut the corner and barged his way past.
A bargain between race control and Red Bull ensured he avoided a time penalty for the manoeuvre by handing back the place during the second red flag stoppage, and he once again lined up in P3 behind Esteban Ocon and Hamilton for the restart.
This time, there was no questioning his moves. Ocon and Hamilton were focused on each other but the Red Bull only had eyes for first place.
An almost impossible dive to the inside of the track on the dirty line almost resulted in more contact between the title protagonists, but Verstappen’s audaciousness paid off and he cleared off with the lead of the race well earned. Fair and square, he made the corner and on the face of it, pulled off a brilliant and critical move. Had the race stopped there, he would have been 15 points ahead of the Mercedes man, heading to Abu Dhabi.
After all of the melee at the start(s), the pre-race concern over his gearbox and whether it would last the race following his crash in qualifying, for the umpteenth time this year, we were left with Verstappen versus Hamilton out in front and duelling for the win.
As they have done all year, the two set about trading fastest lap after fastest lap and the gap ebbed and flowed sector by sector. The scene set for another showdown.
Christian Horner led Red Bull through the Sebastian Vettel years and championship dominance, and says Verstappen’s approach to the title battle has been impressive.
“Max is probably one of the most straightforward drivers I’ve worked with, because he’s binary in his approach,” Horner told Channel 4 earlier this season. “He appreciates absolute openness and honesty and vice versa. I think, when you actually spend time with him and you get to know the real Max Verstappen, he’s just a really nice young guy that’s totally passionate about his racing.
“[He’s] very appreciative of the situation that he’s in, but he’s super hungry and he’s so motivated. I don’t think I’ve ever met a driver so motivated.”
The determination from driver and team meant risking the strategy in order to claw back what had been lost. Restarting on the medium tyres was beneficial off the line but would require a measured drive.
Red Bull’s gamble had gained its driver track position but left him vulnerable on less-durable tyres that would have to be nursed to the end by the Dutchman. Hamilton meanwhile was attacking on his hard tyres to the end.
With all the pressure on his shoulders, Verstappen was inch-perfect all the way and he looked and sounded unflustered by the situation he was in. But the stop/start nature of the race would play its role.
The first red flag played into Red Bull hands after Mercedes had double-stacked its drivers following Mick Schumacher’s Turn 22 crash. It got Verstappen back into things with a free tyre change and pole at the restart. The team desperately craved track position as evidenced by its car set-up swinging towards ultimate one-lap pace over a safer, race-focused option.
And yet it was Hamilton who got the better launch from the dirty side of the grid, Verstappen put immediately on the defensive entering Turn 1 and it was here where things took a turn for the worst.
A skip across the kerbs as Hamilton afforded his rival no choice but to back out of the move and the title was swinging the way of the Mercedes driver. Here though Verstappen rejoined ahead, cutting off the Merc and in the process, allowing Esteban Ocon to slip through for second before another red flag brought another pause to the chaos.
It was a desperate move, never within the bounds of the regulations but with momentum swinging back and forth seemingly with every corner, Verstappen was defiant as always, maybe to a fault.
Following his re-taking of the lead at the subsequent restart, a series of virtual safety cars benefitted Verstappen on paper as it would’ve allowed him to conserve critical tyre life. In the end however, it allowed Hamilton into striking distance.
Lap 36 and Hamilton was into DRS range after a VSC and managed to get ahead into Turn 1 but Verstappen was having none of it. His braking was so late he struggled to gather the car up, almost sliding into Hamilton as the two missed the corner.
Verstappen again cut the corner while Hamilton avoided yet another accident with the Red Bull by taking avoiding action.
It has been that way on several occasions already this year. The race starts at Imola and Barcelona are the prime examples and the Brazilian controversy from a fortnight ago, where Verstappen ran wide and off track to defend his lead, reared its head again.
His championship lead has allowed him to take risks in wheel-to-wheel combat against Hamilton with the latter unable to risk a DNF without seriously denting his hopes of defending the drivers’ title. Arguably the last time we had a true fight between the duo that remained within the rules of engagement was the opening half-lap at Silverstone.
Verstappen has always been defiant in the face of criticism for his on-track actions during his career. Asked back in 2016 if he would be changing his approach to racing after a clarification on rules relating to weaving under-braking, Verstappen was unmoved.
“No, I don’t think so. Let’s see how it’s going to turn out. Maybe they can get past now.” His concede-or-crash mantra has changed very little since his early years in F1 but under the microscope of a championship fight, it’s becoming clearer that something surely has to give.
In Brazil, Verstappen’s aggressiveness was overlooked though just as controversial. This time, the race stewards deemed Verstappen to have been over the line in his defence and he was asked to cede the position.
And this is where the 2021 title fight took an ugly turn. There has been mutual respect between the two all year long while their respective teams have taken shots at each other in the press, but the drivers were at least keeping things relatively above board.
If the gloves were off after Silverstone, Brazil on the absolute borderline of acceptability then Saudi was the straw that broke the camels back.
Asked by his team to let Hamilton go once again, Verstappen obliged but the “strategically” qualifier in race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase’s request resulted in the third and maybe most cynical piece of driving involving both title protagonists this year.
As Verstappen let off and began downshifting around Turn 26, Hamilton followed suit, as of yet unaware that the leader was letting him by.
Both had their racing minds switched on and turned to ten so the smart thing to do was to follow the other across the DRS detection line and gain the benefit of the rear wing flap to get past the car ahead into Turn 1. It was cerebral thinking from Verstappen that was matched by a seven-time world champion 12 years his senior.
But his method of doing so was sinister. A great deal of miscommunication and misunderstanding undoubtedly contributed to the incident, but the telemetry that the race stewards examined after the race was damning.
A force of 69 bar on the brake pedal from Verstappen resulted in a sudden deceleration of 2.4g just as Hamilton reached the gearbox of the Red Bull and contact was inevitable. The stewards branded Verstappen’s actions as “erratic”, the ‘brake-test’ confirmed on the readings taken from his RB16B afterwards and turned a chaotic, frantic and at times frightening race into Senna/Schumacher territory.
Was it a deliberate ploy to crash his title rival out of the race? It’s more likely to be Verstappen slowing more urgently as the DRS line approached. But such a contact would have benefitted him. He’d have been world champion had Hamilton taken off his front right tyre rather than his front wing endplate and been able to take the victory. That surely won’t have been far away in his mind in the past few race weekends.
Hamilton was unimpressed post-race in Saudi Arabia, claiming that the rules no longer applied to Verstappen.
“I think we’re seeing multiple incidents this year where even with Brazil we’re supposed to do our racing on 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,” Hamilton said afterward. “From my understanding, I know that I can’t overtake someone and go off track and then keep the position but I think that’s well known between all us drivers but it doesn’t apply to one of us, I guess.”
Verstappen is clearly destined to fight for wins and titles for as long as he has a car that is worthy of the talent he has. The excitement he has brought with him since joining Formula 1 has brought millions of fans into the fold.
That he has taken Hamilton to a title-decider in a 22-race season goes to show just how capable is already is at 24-years-old, but his worst moments are beginning to overshadow his best more and more often.