YAS ISLAND, Abu Dhabi – The heated and well-documented rivalry of Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen saved the year’s most dramatic and stunning course of events for last.
Verstappen won Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and ultimately his first Formula 1 world championship with a pass on the final lap of the season, upending Hamilton’s would-be record-setting campaign like a bat out of hell.
It’s Red Bull’s first Formula 1 title since 2013.
Mercedes lodged two protests at the race’s conclusion but the protests were eventually dismissed.
“It’s unbelievable. I tried the whole race. I kept fighting and of course that opportunity [happened] on the last lap,” said Verstappen, who squeezed past Hamilton on the fifth turn of the Yas Marina Circuit. “It’s incredible. I’m still having a cramp. It’s insane. It’s insane.”
Hamilton led 51 of 58 laps and appeared destined to break Michael Schumacher’s record with an eighth championship when he opened up a 17-second advantage on Verstappen midway through the running.
Nicholas Latifi’s crash with five laps to go changed everything and gave Verstappen’s Red Bull team the miracle they wished for all race.
Race director Michael Masi didn’t choose to red flag the race, nor let the season end under safety car conditions. That boiled the restart and an entire 22-race season down to a one-lap dash, with the five lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen overtaking the safety car on the lap before resumption.
“Finally, a bit of luck for me,” Verstappen said following the turn of events that played into his championship-winning outcome.
Hamilton was infuriated and Mercedes’ protests essentially claimed that not all the cars were allowed to un-lap themselves and that the safety car can only exit the lap after the permitted cars un-lap themselves.
Hamilton’s tires didn’t have as much life as Verstappen’s, whose team elected to pit during the safety car period with five laps to go.
When the last lap commenced, Verstappen hounded Hamilton the first four turns, then pounced in turn five.
Hamilton countered in turn nine and pulled alongside Verstappen but couldn’t make the pass and lost momentum.
Verstappen throttled down and sent the scene into pandemonium.
“I mean, I don’t know what to say,” Verstappen said. “These guys here are my team … they deserve it. I love them so much, and I have really enjoyed working with them since 2016.
“To my team, they know I love them. Hopefully we can do this for 10, 15 years together. There’s no reason to change. I want to stay with them for the rest of my life.”
In devastation, Hamilton stoically sat in his car, helmet still fastened, a few long minutes once the race concluded.
His most recent words to that point were the long bleep of expletives and “that’s not right” to his Mercedes team when race officials exclusively waved the front five lapped cars around the safety car.
Hamilton won three straight Formula 1 races and erased a 19-point deficit just to draw square with Verstappen.
He started second and got the launch he needed to dominate every stage of the race until the last lap breakdown.
“Firstly, a big congratulations to Max and to his team,” Hamilton said. “I think we did an amazing job this year. My team, all the people back at the factory, all the men and women we have, and here, have worked so hard this whole year.
“It’s been the most difficult of seasons and I’m so proud of them, so grateful to be a part of the journey with them.”
“We gave it everything,” Hamilton added. “This last part of the season, we gave it everything. We never gave up. That’s the most important thing.”
The last Formula 1 event decided on the final lap was the 2016 Austria Grand Prix. Hamilton overtook Nico Rosberg on that day and Verstappen ironically finished second.
On Sunday, Hamilton was on the wrong side of history as Verstappen befitted perhaps the most dramatic Formula 1 season of them all.
“It’s just insane,” Verstappen said. “I mean, my goal when I was little was to become a Formula 1 driver and to go for wins, to be on the podium. When they play the national anthem, you want it to be yours and when you stand here and they tell you that you are the world champion, it’s something incredible and special.”