The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix had just about everything. Controversy. Drama. A collision between F1’s two title protagonists, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, with some controversial FIA decisions sprinkled in for good measure.
Remarkably, Verstappen and Hamilton are level on points heading to the final race of the season, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Verstappen leads on countback as he has more victories, which means he will win the title if they stay level on points.
With just one week until Abu Dhabi’s race, the events of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix are likely to dominate the build-up to that winner-takes-all finale.
Here’s how it all unfolded and what the two title protagonists had to say about everything.
Lap 1: Hamilton made a clean start to lead Valtteri Bottas and Verstappen into Turn 1.
The uneventful start made it easy to think the race which followed would be fairly routine at a circuit with minimal overtaking opportunities and for the first 10 laps it was unfolding just like that.
One moment would flip the script and set in motion the incredible turn of events that followed.
Lap 11: Mick Schumacher’s heavy crash at Turn 22 immediately prompted the Safety Car. Schumacher was OK, but his car — and, as it turned out, the crash barrier — had suffered significant damage.
The deployment of a Safety Car is usually a good opportunity for teams to pit earlier than they otherwise would have at racing speed. Mercedes took the opportunity to pit both its drivers, although this was where the first controversial moment of the race took place.
With Hamilton comfortably out in front, Bottas slowed considerably to apparently slow Verstappen’s progress to the pit-lane. Speaking on the radio, Verstappen was incensed, saying it “shouldn’t be allowed”.
His race engineer’s response about Bottas was almost entirely censored for colourful language, leaving no doubt how Red Bull felt about what the Finn was doing.
Lap 12: Hamilton and Bottas both pitted, switching from medium tyres to hards.
Red Bull kept Verstappen out, a logical decision as an alternate strategy is often the best opportunity to win a race on a narrow street circuit.
Red flag #1: The controversy intensified a couple of laps later, as FIA race director Michael Masi red-flagged the race for repairs to be carried out to the Turn 22 safety barrier.
The red flag effectively postpones the race. Crucially, under F1’s regulations, it effectively allowed Verstappen — and anyone else who had stayed out — a free pit-stop as they could change their tyres during the stoppage.
The rule has been controversial for a while and several drivers spoke out about it after the race.
It meant Verstappen had inherited first position and been able to change his tyres.
Hamilton was furious, saying over the radio: “The tyre wall looked fine. That’s s—.
“Find out what the reason for the red flag is”
Hamilton later sent a message to Mercedes strategist James Vowels, saying: “That’s unbelievable, man.
“James, that was a big gamble they just took because we were right behind them. That doesn’t even make sense.”
Lap 15: It was a standing restart on the grid, like a standard start at the beginning of a race.
During the lap back to the grid, Verstappen had complained over the radio at how slowly Hamilton had been driving behind him, suggesting his title rival was taking his time to get to the grid.
When the start lights went out, Hamilton had the better getaway and was ahead of Verstappen as they turned left at Turn 1. Hamilton squeezed Verstappen on the apex and the Red Bull driver ran off the circuit and rejoined ahead.
Hamilton took evasive action to avoid a collision, allowing Alpine’s Esteban Ocon up into second position.
Behind the action at the front, there was further drama, as Sergio Perez lost control of his car and spun. In trying to avoid a collision, George Russell slowed and was hit from behind by Nikita Mazepin.
All three drivers were OK, but it immediately prompted another red flag due to the huge work required to clear the track.
Red flag #2: Once again, the drivers returned to the pit-lane for the red flag.
On this occasion, the controversy centred around where Verstappen would start.
Had the race continued without a red flag, it’s likely Red Bull would have been told to ask Verstappen to give the position back to Hamilton. That may have been complicated by the fact Ocon had ended up between them, but the red flag meant we did not see that situation play out.
Instead, FIA race director Michael Masi was fielding calls from both Red Bull and Mercedes about what might happen.
Initially, it sounded as though Verstappen would drop one position on the grid.
Masi offered Red Bull the choice of Verstappen dropping from first to second, which would have seen him still starting ahead of Hamilton.
When Red Bull clarified this is what he meant, Masi corrected himself and said he meant dropping to third behind Hamilton.
Speaking after the race, Christian Horner said he had never encountered such an example of the FIA race director effectively offering teams a deal over where they would or wouldn’t start.
“I’ve not come across that previously,” Horner said. “Obviously, we voiced our own argument, I am sure Mercedes voiced theirs. It was just very frustrating.”
It was agreed Ocon would start from first, with Hamilton second and Verstappen third.
While Hamilton stayed on the more durable hard tyre, Verstappen had the grippier (but less durable) medium tyre put on his car, giving him a better chance for a good getaway off the grid.
Lap 17: At the restart, Verstappen pulled out something special to immediately get back into the lead.
With Hamilton seeming to get distracted by Ocon to his right, Verstappen lunged down the inside of Hamilton and Ocon to snatch first position.
Though it would be overshadowed by the controversial incidents which followed in the second half of the race, it was a championship-calibre overtaking move by Verstappen.
Hamilton was squeezed by Verstappen on one side and Ocon on the other and was fortunate not to lose his front wing. He slipped behind Ocon in the process, but had passed the Alpine driver by the end of the lap.
Lap 19-36: Three Virtual Safety Car periods come and go, due to several incidents and the amount of debris scattered on the circuit.
The VSC, which requires drivers to drive at a certain delta time to allow marshals to conduct safety work, keeps Verstappen and Hamilton’s fight hanging in the balance.
The drama gets ridiculous
Lap 37: And then it all kicked off.
Hamilton got within DRS range of Verstappen, attempted a move around the outside and Verstappen ran wide again trying to retain position.
Verstappen emerged in the lead, but the stewards immediately noted the incident and told Red Bull to give the position back. Then, just when you thought the race couldn’t get any crazier, the two title rivals collided.
But this wasn’t a wheel-to-wheel racing collision, it occurred as Verstappen slowed to let Hamilton past as a result of the Turn 1 incident. Verstappen, it seemed, wanted Hamilton to pass before the DRS detection zone, allowing the Red Bull the best chance of retaking the lead on the following straight.
But while Red Bull had told Verstappen to give back the position after conversations with race control, Hamilton had not been notified of the plan. Mercedes sporting director Ron Meadows claimed he was only informed Verstappen would give the position back as the Red Bull slowed in front of Hamilton, meaning the Mercedes driver had no warning and collided with the rear of Verstappen.
“There were two scenarios [that led to the collision],” Hamilton said after the race. “One, it wasn’t clear [what Verstappen was doing] and, two, I didn’t get the information [he would let me pass].
“Then it became apparent that he was trying to let me past, which I guess he had been asked to do, but before the DRS zone. That meant he would’ve DRS’d back past, follow me through the last corner and then DRS me into Turn 1. So that was a tactic.
“But the worst part was just the steep, heavy braking that then happened at one point, which is when we collided. That was the dangerous part.”
Lap 38: At the time Hamilton’s choice of words was less diplomatic.
“He just brake tested me,” he said over team radio. “That was dangerous driving.”
He added: “This guy is f—— crazy, man.”
Hamilton was told the damage to his front wing looked OK to continue the race with despite an endplate hanging off on one side. The stewards decided to investigate the incident after the race.
Lap 42: Mercedes team manager Meadows was furious at race director Masi, claiming he was not told by the FIA that Hamilton would be let through by Verstappen.
There was some backchat from Masi that Meadows wasn’t listening to the correct channel, but Meadows said he only had the message once Verstappen had already slowed down in front of Hamilton. Despite the front wing damage, Hamilton stayed within a few seconds of Verstappen before the Red Bull driver slowed again on the approach to Turn 27 and let Hamilton by.
But just as the Mercedes went past, Verstappen shot back up the inside to reclaim the lead, leaving pretty much everyone at the circuit gobsmacked at what they were witnessing. Soon after, the stewards confirmed that Verstappen had been given a five-second post-race penalty for leaving the track at Turn 1 on lap 37 and gaining an advantage in keeping Hamilton behind.
Lap 44: Verstappen slowed again on the approach to Turn 27 and this time Hamilton took no chances in making the move stick. In passing Verstappen he ran him right up to the edge of the track, preventing the Red Bull getting a run on to the pit straight towards Turn 1. Verstappen was later told by his race engineer that he didn’t need to let him past because he already had the five-second penalty against his name, but it likely wouldn’t have made much difference to his result.
Masi later told Meadows that Hamilton pushing Verstappen wide was “borderline” for a black and white warning flag. Meadows said he would relay the message.
Lap 47: Verstappen reported that his rear tyres were “gone” as he dropped more lap time to Hamilton. However, his gap to Ocon in third place was not big enough for Red Bull to complete a pit stop and retain second place, so Verstappen had to nurse his tyres to the finish.
Lap 48: Hamilton made sure of the point for fastest lap with a series of quick sectors but as he did so he lost another part of his front wing over one of the kerbs. Nevertheless, 26 points appeared to be secure with two laps left and the prospect of the championship going down to the final race level on points is on.
Lap 50: Hamilton crossed the line to secure the victory after a remarkable race. Verstappen upped his pace slightly on the final lap to finish 6.8s off Hamilton, which became 11.8s with the time penalty. It would later increase to 20.8s as he was also found guilty of causing the collision with Hamilton on lap 37 when data from his car showed he had slammed on the brakes in front of the Mercedes.
Bottas managed to secure third place after outdragging Ocon to the line coming out of the final corner, but the gap to Verstappen was not big enough for him to benefit from Verstappen’s post-race penalty.
As you can imagine after a race featuring so much controversy, the post-race quotes were spicy.
Verstappen didn’t even wait until he was out of the car to throw a verbal grenade. When told he’d been voted F1’s driver of the day by fans, he said: “Luckily the fans have a clear mind about racing because what happened today is unbelievable.
“I’m just trying to race and this sport these days is more about penalties than about racing.
“For me this is not Formula 1 but at least the fans enjoyed it.
“I gave it all today but clearly not quick enough. But still, happy with second.”
Hamilton did not hold back either, later telling Sky Sports that Verstappen is “over the limit” and does not think F1’s rules apply to him.