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Red Bull’s Max Verstappen took his first Formula One title, denying rival Lewis Hamilton a record eighth, with a last-lap overtake to win a season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that started and ended in drama and controversy.
Hamilton’s Mercedes team secured the constructors’ championship for an unprecedented eighth successive year but Verstappen, 24, ended a run of double dominance dating back to 2014.
“It’s insane,” said the first Dutch world champion who had started the day on pole position and level on points with Hamilton and whose hopes sank and rose as the stewards intervened.
“This is unbelievable guys! Can we do this for another 10-15 years together,” he had said over the radio.
“We needed a bit of luck and we got it,” said team boss Christian Horner.
The race at Yas Marina started and ended in controversy, but without the collision many had feared.
There were tears of joy at Red Bull and rage at Mercedes, whose fury was directed at Australian race director Michael Masi as the drivers’ title disappeared so close to the chequered flag.
Red Bull, whose partners Honda are now departing the sport, had said during the race that they needed a miracle to win as Hamilton made the most of a quicker car to head towards the title.
A late safety car intervention, after Canadian Nicholas Latifi crashed with five laps to go, provided hope and it was game on when Masi decided not to let all lapped cars pass the safety car before resuming racing.
That allowed Verstappen — on fresher, faster tyres after strategic stops — to close and go wheel-to-wheel with Hamilton for the lead.
At one point it had seemed the race could finish behind the safety car as marshals took time to remove Latifi’s stranded Williams.
“We were screaming at the end to let them race,” said Horner. “It is unheard of to leave the cars unlapped. They wanted to get the race going again. They absolutely made the right call.”
Hamilton, who had been heading for a fourth successive race win and 104th of his career, congratulated the new champion.
“I think we did an amazing job this year. The team, everyone back at the factory, all the men and women we have, worked so hard all year in a difficult season,” he said.
“I am so proud of them, and so grateful to be part of the journey with them. We gave it everything this last part of the season and never gave up, that’s the most important thing.”
Verstappen ended the season with 10 wins to Hamilton’s eight, having also led more laps and taken more poles and podiums.
After a record 22 races, Verstappen had 395.5 points to Hamilton’s 387.5. Mercedes scored 613.5 to Red Bull’s 585.5.
Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz finished the race in third place, with AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda fourth and teammate Pierre Gasly fifth.
Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas was sixth in his last race for the team, ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris and the Alpines of Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc took the final point, with the Italian team ending the season third overall.
Verstappen’s Mexican teammate, Sergio Perez, hailed as a “legend” by the Dutch driver for slowing Hamilton significantly while leading earlier in the race, was retired by Red Bull in the pits.
The race hit immediate controversy on the opening lap when the title rivals almost collided after the Briton had taken the lead.
Hamilton was pushed wide, cutting a corner as he came back still in front of Verstappen who had made a lunge on the inside and seemed to be ahead at the turn, and stewards decided no investigation was needed.
“That’s incredible. What are they doing here?” said Verstappen when informed.
Horner told Sky Sports television from the pitwall that there was “a total lack of consistency” in the stewards’ decision and his team now had to “do it the hard way”.
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Published by Arena Holdings and distributed with the Financial Mail on the last Thursday of every month except December and January.