The Brazilian hangover that shaped Verstappen vs Hamilton battle in Saudi Arabia


Unpredictability, unclear rules of engagement and a title in the balance produced a chaotic race in Jeddah says Mark Hughes

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - DECEMBER 05: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing RB16B Honda and Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes W12 collide during the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at Jeddah Corniche Circuit on December 05, 2021 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)

Verstappen and Hamilton's fight then nasty turn

Lars Baron/Getty Images

Ambiguity and racing rules are not a good mix. Max Verstappen’s actions at Turn 4 Brazil – when to thwart Lewis Hamilton’s pass, he ran them both off the circuit – and the non-action from officialdom afterwards contributed to the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix being a confusing and ill-natured battle between the two title contenders, albeit one which put them level on points going into the Abu Dhabi finale.

Hamilton won after Verstappen was forced to surrender position for crossing the line several times. “We’re supposed to do our racing on track between the white lines,” Hamilton said afterwards. “And the rules haven’t been clear from the stewards that those things [in Brazil] have been allowed, so that’s continued. That’s my understanding. I know I can’t overtake someone by going off track and then keep position. That’s well known between us drivers but it doesn’t apply to one of us I guess.”

He said this with Verstappen – who was given two time penalties as well as being told to surrender position – sitting right next to him. “I find it interesting that I’m the one who gets the penalty when both of us ran outside of the white lines. In Brazil it was fine and now suddenly I get a penalty for it,” Verstappen said post-race.

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

Stewards weren’t prepared to overloook Verstappen’s ‘Brazil’ line 

Grand Prix Photo

None of this would have been an issue if Verstappen had completed his final qualifying lap the day before. Pole was going to be the reward for a stunning piece of committed driving between the walls of the super-fast street track. But arriving at the final turn faster than before, his braking point was earlier than previously but a lock-up sent him wide and in the wall he went. Had he taken the pole, he may have been able to have delivered quite a routine victory.

But his accident put Hamilton and Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas on the front row ahead of him. His efforts at correcting that in the race – with his ‘Brazilian’ understanding of what is allowed and an eight-point lead going in and thereby caring less than Hamilton about any contact – made this such a dramatic and sometimes ill-natured battle.

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At first it seemed like a routine Hamilton victory from pole, stretching gradually away with Bottas protecting him and Verstappen doing no more than hanging on to the second Merc. But a Mick Schumacher crash on the 10th lap brought out the red flags and in that moment the race changed from routine to extraordinary as Verstappen saw opportunity.

Verstappen had assumed the lead as the Mercs pitted under the Schumacher safety car. When that safety car was supplanted by the red flags, Verstappen’s prospects came alive, as he could now get his tyre change for free. In his reaction to Hamilton out-dragging him off the line – all four wheels on the run-off to retake the position – we got a foretaste of how Verstappen was going to run his race.

There wasn‘t time to instruct him to give the place back – because there was almost immediately another red flag. Sergio Perez had clipped Charles Leclerc and spun at Turn 3, triggering a big accident at the back in which Nikita Mazepin crashed the remaining Haas into George Russell’s Williams.

Race director Michael Masi instead insisted Verstappen drop two places on the second restart (with Esteban Ocon on ‘pole’, having taking advantage of Hamilton’s evasive action). But to counter that Red Bull had fitted him with medium compound tyres, with almost everyone else on hards. These allowed him to go from third into the lead with a beautifully committed move inside Hamilton.

As Verstappen’s tyres wore down Hamilton came back him. With the aid of DRS he got ahead on the pit straight – only for Verstappen to again refuse to surrender around the outside run-off, with a big oversteer moment that forced Hamilton off track too, thereby getting the Red Bull back ahead. Again it was judged not a legitimate move and he was ordered to give the place back.

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

Damaged but still good enough for victory: Hamilton’s front wing

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

This is where it got really strange. Verstappen decided he’d slow just before the DRS detection point, get Hamilton to pass him there so that he’d get DRS on him and slipstream back ahead. Hamilton didn’t want to do that and so delayed passing him. Verstappen tried to further ensure he got his way by braking – at 2.4g. Hamilton clipped the back of the Red Bull but remarkably the front wing was still working.

Verstappen sprinted away, the Red Bull plan now being to anticipate a five-second penalty by getting more than 5sec lead. But he couldn’t – as Hamilton tracked him. So a second attempt at letting him by was made – at Turn 23. Hamilton came by, Verstappen immediately counter-attacked into 24 to take it back again.

That wasn’t deemed satisfactory and just as the stewards then imposed the five-second penalty, Hamilton was diving down Verstappen’s inside at the final corner as the Dutchman let him past once more, the decisive move for victory.