F1 title rivals level on points after contentious Saudi Arabia GP
- Verstappen and Hamilton head to season finale equal on points after thrilling Saudi Arabia GP
- Title rivals clash on track yet again with multiple incidents
- Verstappen receives two penalties as Hamilton wins third race in a row
Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton are level on points heading to the final Grand Prix of the season next weekend, after a scarcely believable Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
For at least the third time this year, the pair collided on track as they battled for the lead of the race, with Hamilton eventually taking his third consecutive win and his eighth of the season.
That came after numerous other moments of contention, as the closest fought championship battle in years reached new levels of bitterness and controversy.
The race around the new Jeddah Corniche Circuit, venue for the first ever F1 event in Saudi Arabia, started in a straightforward enough manner, with pole sitter Hamilton leading away Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas at the start.
Verstappen ran third in the early exchanges after missing out on pole following a brush with the wall on his final qualifying run, at the end of what would have been one of the laps of the season, having been well up on Hamilton’s time.
With Hamilton leading the field and Bottas between the title contenders, initially it looked as if it would be advantage Mercedes in the title fight, but safety cars and race interruptions were always likely on the terrifyingly quick street circuit, which features little run off areas and flat out blasts between concrete walls.
And the first interruption immediately turned the race on its head, as Mick Schumacher’s Haas slammed into the wall at turn 22 on the tenth lap. The safety car was immediately deployed, and both Mercedes pitted for fresh tyres and resumed behind Verstappen who opted to stay out.
The black cars returned to the track behind Verstappen, and when the red flags came out a few laps later due to the barrier damage, the race swung wildly in the Dutchman’s favour, as the red flag rules allow teams to repair damage or change tyres, effectively free of any time penalty.
Come the restart, in the form of another standing start, Hamilton found his way past Verstappen after a blistering getaway, but his rival went around the outside of him, ran across the run off area and rejoined alongside Hamilton. Verstappen held the lead, but his re-entry to the track delayed Hamilton and allowed Alpine’s Esteban Ocon to squeeze ahead of the seven time champion into second place.
But the race was to be stopped for a second time moments later as Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez was tipped into a spin by Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, while George Russell and Nikita Mazepin were eliminated in the chain reaction.
With three cars parked at the side of the road and debris across the track, the red flags flew again, and as the cars returned to the circuit, so the exchanges between Race Control and Verstappen’s Red Bull team began. Over the team radio channel, Race Director Michael Masi advised the team that Verstappen should drop to third place on the starting grid for the third start, behind Ocon and Hamilton, which Red Bull eventually agreed to when it became clear the turn one incident would otherwise be investigated by the stewards and result in a likely penalty.
The race then resumed for a third time, and having made two poor starts, this time Verstappen made a blinder, going three wide into turn one with Hamilton and Ocon. The latter pair made brief contact sending Ocon across the run-off area. The Frenchman held the lead but Verstappen blasted past immediately while Ocon held off the Mercedes.
As Verstappen pulled away, Hamilton needed to pass Ocon as a matter of urgency, and he moved ahead on the start/finish straight at the end of the lap.
It was then all about the championship-fighting duo, with Verstappen leading on the quicker but less durable medium Pirelli tyres, and Hamilton on the harder option.
Despite the tyre offset, Hamilton was the faster of the pair but denied a chance of going for the lead for a few laps after a couple of virtual safety car periods to retrieve debris.
Once they were cleared, Hamilton got within DRS range of his rival and on lap 37, went for the lead at turn one. He stormed by and looked to have taken the lead, only for Verstappen to brake late, run deep into the run off area and deny Hamilton the position in scenes almost reminiscent of their Brazil battle two races ago.
Red Bull advised Verstappen to hand back the position having gained an unfair advantage, and on the flat out run to the final corner, he slowed. Hamilton in turn eased off and stayed behind, leading Verstappen to slow further, with Hamilton hitting the back of his car as confusion reigned.
Verstappen then sped back up to retain the lead, with Hamilton concerned about front wing damage.
The Dutchman held the lead for a few more laps, but then slowed for a second time to hand Hamilton the position at the same place. This time Hamilton did go past, but Verstappen immediately blasted back into the lead.
As the cat and mouse games continued, Verstappen was handed a five second time penalty, meaning Hamilton had to simply finish behind his rival to win the race.
But again Verstappen slowed on the approach to the final corner with seven laps remaining, and this time Hamilton forced Verstappen wide, for which he received a warning.
Hamilton then pulled away easily, and set the fastest lap of the race while Verstappen was nursing either his degrading tyres or managing potential damage at the back of his car. Hamilton won by over 11 seconds, with the point for fastest lap meaning the title contenders head to Abu Dhabi equal on points, the first time this scenario had happened since the 1970s.
Hamilton’s teammate Bottas meanwhile edged past Ocon as they crossed the line, giving Mercedes a considerable advantage in the constructors’ standings ahead of the last race.
The drama and controversy wasn’t over though, as Verstappen and Hamilton were called to the stewards post race as their latest collision was investigated. Verstappen was deemed to be at fault, with data showing he’d braked at a force of 2.4g, and handed an additional 10 second time penalty, though it didn’t drop him any further down the order.
With a season of controversy, incident and drama reaching its climax, and the title contenders equal on points, all indicators point towards more of the same at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina circuit next weekend.
At the moment, Verstappen technically still leads the championship due to his greater win tally (nine versus eight) meaning if Hamilton fails to finish the race, Verstappen is the new champion. But more intriguingly is the simple fact that whichever driver finishes in front of the other will take the title; a record-breaking eight for Hamilton, or a milestone first for Verstappen.
Richard Randle is a motorsport PR professional working with the UK’s top racing circuits and the UK’s premier single-seater category, the BRDC British F3 Championship.