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Max Verstappen: the miracle that made an F1 champion

Red Bull star snatched Lewis Hamilton’s crown in a dramatic finale in Abu Dhabi

The 2021 Formula 1 championship has been the most tumultuous in the sport’s history, said Oliver Brown in The Daily Telegraph, and it reached its climax with another absurdly dramatic race. Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen headed to Abu Dhabi locked on 369.5 points apiece – meaning whoever finished the race first would be crowned world champion. The Englishman seized the early advantage, flying out from second on the grid to take the lead before the first corner. Verstappen nearly recovered it seconds later when he dived on the inside and briefly forced Hamilton off the track, but Hamilton clung on to his advantage. He was still ahead with five laps to go, now leading by 12 seconds. Verstappen’s plight appeared hopeless. “We are going to need a miracle,” declared Red Bull principal Christian Horner. 

A miracle is what they got, said Sean Ingle in The Guardian. On lap 53, Nicholas Latifi crashed his Williams, and in so doing caused the safety car to be called out: all cars now had to reduce speed and drive round the track in a line behind the safety car with no overtaking permitted. The slowing down of the cars gave Verstappen the golden opportunity to make a rapid pit stop for new tyres and still keep his second place – though there were now five lapped cars between himself and the leader: Hamilton. With just four laps to go, any further normal racing seemed unlikely: it looked as if the cars would end the race in safety car order, leaving Hamilton the winner. But when Latifi’s car was eventually cleared, there was time for just one more lap of racing. At this point, race director Michael Masi made the fateful decision to allow the five lapped cars in front of Verstappen to “delap” themselves (i.e. to move ahead and overtake the safety car), clearing them from the Dutchman’s path. This pushed him right behind Hamilton, making the final lap a “shootout”. 

With his fresh tyres, Verstappen was always likely to win it, said Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail. So it proved: he overtook his rival with a typically opportunistic manoeuvre to clinch his maiden title. It was an enthralling finish, but not the right one. By letting those five drivers delap themselves, Masi prioritised his desire for a moment of “high octane theatre” over strict adherence to the F1 rules. It’s hard not to feel that Hamilton had his title “stolen”. Nonsense, said Oliver Brown. The rules surrounding safety cars are complicated, but Masi interpreted them reasonably. Although Mercedes have lodged various appeals, they’d be wise to accept the result. Overall, Verstappen has been the better driver this season, winning the most races and appearing “on the podium more than any driver in F1 history”. He may have been helped by a massive stroke of luck at the end – but the F1 crown is no less than he deserves.

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