Verstappen Wins on Last Lap!

Sunday’s race came down to the wire. The championship came down to the last lap! In a controversial year of racing, many believe the race ended in a controversial manner. Honestly, I am not sure I agree. Sport is sport. Rules are rules. Fair play is fair play. No one wanted to see this race end on a safety car. No one wanted to see Max Verstappen have to get around 5 cars that have already been lapped to catch Lewis Hamilton. Everyone wanted to see the two drivers, who have duked it out the whole season, go at it one more time. Thank you racing stewards. We were not disappointed.

It didn’t take long for the race to have its first controversy. Though Verstappen started on pole, Hamilton executed an outstanding start taking the lead at the first corner. As the driver’s approach turn 6, Verstappen hit the apex on the inside line before Hamilton, pushing Hamilton wide. Instead of backing off, Hamilton goes off the track and regains his position lost. Film doesn’t lie. Verstappen was clearly at the apex first. Whether it was because Hamilton backed off or Verstappen hit the brakes late, it doesn’t matter. Verstappen had the racing right-of-way and earned the position. The man that said racing should be decided within the white lines took advantage outside the lines. Yes, I was referring to Lewis Hamilton. Yet the racing stewards only told Hamilton to back off a few seconds instead of giving Verstappen his earned position back.

Verstappen started the race at a disadvantage. He knew he would be at least a two-stop race because he started the race with soft tires. At lap 14 Verstappen pits and changes to the hard tire hoping to last the rest of the race. With Verstappen running fourth, and Sergio Perez in second, Hamilton pits on lap 15 wherein the Mercedes team executes a 2.4 second pitstop, allowing Hamilton to exit pitlane in second place behind Perez. Hamilton took 5 laps to catch up with Sergio Perez. During lap 19 Verstappen was in third and 9 seconds behind Hamilton. Checo put on a show during lap 20. He already had 20 laps on his soft tires. He knew he couldn’t hold off Hamilton for long, but he made a great show! He needed to in order to help Verstappen catch up. During lap 20 Hamilton takes the lead going into turn 5 but Perez lunges up the inside retaking the lead. Coming out of the turn and heading into turn 6, Hamilton takes the lead once again. As the two furiously race thru the next few corners they hit the DRS zone and Perez executes a beautiful maneuver taking Hamilton on the inside line going into turn 9 and retakes the lead. Perez carries the lead right thru the middle of lap 21 where Hamilton finally catches Perez on the long straight in the DRS zone. Perez’s excellent driving helped Verstappen make up 9 seconds placing him 1.6 seconds behind Hamilton at that point in the race.

The race didn’t get super interesting until lap 53. During lap 29, Kimi Raikkonen and George Russell had to exit the race due to mechanical issues. Raikkonen, who won Ferrari’s last world championship, didn’t get to see the checkered flag in his last career race. During Lap 36 Antonio Giovinazzi caused a virtual safety car due to mechanical issues. His race was over as well. Of note, during the safety car, Red Bull called Verstappen to change to a new set of hard tires. Mercedes left Hamilton on the track. Hamilton worriedly asked if that was the right call.

Lap 53 decided this race and ultimately the championship. The race commentators had already declared Lewis Hamilton racing champion on lap 51. At lap 52 Chris Horner, team principal for Red Bull, said that the racing gods would have to intervene for Red Bull to have a shot. Everything looked like Hamilton would win his 8th Formula One World Championship. At lap 53, Verstappen was 12 seconds behind Hamilton. He wasn’t going to catch him before the checkered flag at lap 58. Then, lightning struck! Mick Schumacher and Nicholas Latifi tangled putting Latifi and his Williams into the wall at turn 14. With 5 laps to go, Verstappen came into the pits to change to the soft tires. Hamilton asked if he should box. Mercedes said no. As the race marshals cleared the Williams wreck, the racing stewards said that the lapped cars would stay put and would not allow them to pass the safety car prior to a restart. That meant the 5 lapped cars (Norris, Alonzo, Ocon, LeClerc and Vettel) between Verstappen and Hamilton would stay put and Verstappen would have to pass them all to catch Hamilton. Once again, circumstances changed. The marshals moved the wreck quicker than the stewards originally thought, allowing enough time for the 5 lap runners to pass the safety car setting the stage for a Hamilton, Verstappen restart. Hamilton and Mercedes were furious. Yet, they made the mistake to not change to fresh tires when the opportunity presented itself.

At Lap 57 the safety car pulled away and Verstappen and Hamilton were off! One last lap to decide the champion. One last lap to make history. Hamilton took off, maintaining the lead. Verstappen overtook him at turn 5 taking the inside line and blasting off into the next DRS zone. As they come down the back straight Hamilton pulled up on the outside with the slip stream and the two front runners almost touched but Verstappen edged him out on turn 9 and never looked back. Checkered flag. Verstappen and Red Bull Wins!

Make no mistake, history was made today. Another Formula 1 driver enters the pantheon of racing champions. Red Bull earns its 5th drivers’ championship (their first four were with Sebastian Vettel). Max Verstappen earned his 10th win and his 18th podium of a 22-race season. Lastly, the last time a Formula 1 race was won with a last lap pass occurred in 2016 when Lewis Hamilton passed Nico Rosberg in the Austrian Grand Prix. Sunday’s result seems fitting, doesn’t it?

Jos Verstappen is Max’s father. He competed in Formula 3 and Formula 1. Watching him in the Red Bull paddock highlighted the emotional highs and lows of this last 58 lap race of the season. In the post-race interview, he exhibited graciousness and perspective. Jos acknowledged that Mercedes had the pace. He also acknowledged that but for Latifi’s crash, his son would not have won. Christian Horner also acknowledged that while Mercedes had the pace, Red Bull’s strategy at key moments of the race allowed them the opportunity to win. He was thankful for the Latifi wreck as well. Honestly, I thought Horner’s post-race interview made him the most likeable I have seen him in years.

When two giants crash together, the margins matter. Decisions, seconds and inches matter. Fans of racing what to see the best go head-to-head. The racing stewards knew that, and circumstances allowed for Hamilton and Verstappen to go head-to-head. Who knows would have won if Hamilton changed to soft tires? Mercedes had the pace. Yet, they didn’t take advantage of the safety car. Some will argue that would have dropped them track position. So? It would have dropped them to the same place Verstappen was at. Mercedes executed the wrong strategy. Red Bull executed the right strategy. Max drove the lights out of his car throughout the race. It didn’t have the pace of the Mercedes, but he put himself in the best position to win by driving his car to the very limit as he had done all season.

Regardless of what folks say about this race, championships are won by a culmination of effort throughout a season. Red Bull consistently performed throughout the season. Their team worked together thru adversity. They made mistakes. They overcame them. They won the championship.

One final note. It was nice to see Ferrari and Carlos Sainz be in position to secure third at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. As a Ferrari fan, I hope it is an omen of good things to come from Ferrari Scuderia.

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