The drama here was incredible — the entire season came down to one lap at the end of the last race between two drivers who had the exact same number of points over the season.
Lewis Hamilton had led the entire race and was clearly the fastest driver in the fastest car on that day at that track — but with just 4-5 laps remaining a crash caused a yellow caution flag, allowing the cars to bunch together again with Verstappen right behind Hamilton. The big question: would the race stewards let the race end that way, under a caution (ie “extremely boring”), or go green again and see what happens?
This situation created a problem for Hamilton and his Mercedes team — they had gambled early (lap 14 of 58) that with the faster car they could finish the race on the hard compound tires (avoiding the need to pit again) but that left them exposed for this situation: Verstappen, with fresh soft compound tires compared to Hamilton’s older hard compound tires, and now right behind Hamilton instead of 10 seconds behind, was very well positioned to pass on any tight corner.
Mercedes was stuck IF the caution was lifted.
This article explains what happened next:
Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes dominated the event from the first lap until the penultimate one, but Max Verstappen’s Red Bull took the victory – and thereby the championship – on the last lap under circumstances Mercedes believed were invalid.
The controversy began on Lap 52, six from the end, when Nicholas Latifi – battling with Mick Schumacher’s Haas – crashed his Williams into the Turn 14 barriers. At this point Hamilton was leading Verstappen by 11s and was well on his way to an unprecedented eighth world championship.
Safety Car. With the field slowed to the Safety Car pace, it’s the perfect opportunity to get onto new tyres for the restart. Unless of course you are leading the race by less time than it would take to get into the pits, make your tyre change and accelerate back out again still leading. Eleven seconds wouldn’t have been enough to do that. In this situation, pitting Hamilton would always have triggered Red Bull into leaving Verstappen out there, in the lead with the race almost over.
Mercedes had to leave Hamilton out there – on hard compound tyres which had been on since Lap 14. Hamilton was potentially looking at a last-gasp restart for the race and the championship with his rival sitting right on his gearbox on a brand new set of softs. Of having his title taken from him by random fate.
But… it seemed like it might not come to that. As the car and the debris were removed, we were running out of laps. It seemed entirely possible that the race would end under the Safety Car. In the last couple of years there has been a general agreement with the teams that the Race Director should always endeavour to have the race ending under green flag conditions, even if only for a lap or two, as at Baku earlier this year.
The video above shows how it played out.
Congratulaions to Max Verstappen — one of my favorite drivers — on his first ever World Championship.