Controversial Saudi Arabian Grand Prix Amplifies Tensions in Formula 1

Hamilton prevails in a riveting, perplexing, breathtaking race; championship rivals tied heading into the season finale.


REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton celebrates with the trophy on the podium after winning the race as second placed Red Bull’s Max Verstappen looks dispirited.

From its inception, the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was set to be a unique Formula One event. The track has the most corners of any circuit in the 2021 Formula One calendar, and it is the fastest street circuit of all time. Nearly four-fifths of the lap is taken at full throttle, with top speeds above two hundred miles per hour. There are tight walls surrounding nearly every single one of the twenty-seven corners along the circuit, waiting to punish any driver who puts their right foot down too early. This highly anticipated – and quite stunning – circuit made its Formula One debut last weekend in the penultimate race of the season, and it did not disappoint!

Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, the two title rivals, entered Saudi Arabia with high expectations. Verstappen, the challenger, led Hamilton, the seven-time world champion, by eight points, yet his advantage had been slipping race by race. The circuit presented many uncertainties for both drivers and their teams, and it was perhaps the most grueling, intricate circuit of the season. At first, it was not easy to decipher whether Verstappen’s Red Bull or Hamilton’s Mercedes would be quicker. After many practice sessions, however, it became clear that Verstappen was slightly speedier in the first section of the track, which included many slightly slower corners, while Hamilton was faster on the straights of the latter half of the track. 

The race started in a surprisingly tranquil fashion with no significant crashes in the first lap. Hamilton remained in first place, well ahead of Verstappen in third, and everything seemed to be going perfectly for the seven-time world champion. Suddenly, Mick Schumacher crashed on lap 10, causing a complete stoppage of the race (a red flag). During this stoppage, Red Bull got a bit lucky with the pit stop game – the mechanics were able to change Verstappen’s tires for free without affecting his time – and this resulted in Verstappen strategically stealing the lead from Hamilton! The race eventually restarted, but there were so many high-speed crashes – involving other drivers such as Sergio Pérez, Nicholas Latifi, and Nikita Mazepin – that it was necessary to halt the Grand Prix for the second time. All of this pandemonium eventually led to Verstappen and Hamilton occupying the first and second positions, respectively, while dropping the rest of the cars quite quickly. Now the race would be decided solely based on the performance of these two powerhouse drivers. Hamilton had to catch Verstappen; otherwise, he was almost guaranteed to lose the championship.

Verstappen and Hamilton fighting through turn 1. Credits: Motorsports Images

Although Hamilton could fly on the second half of the lap, he struggled to overtake Verstappen during the middle of the race because the Red Bull driver was able to gap him by nearly eight-tenths of a second in the first part of the lap. By the time Hamilton got close to Verstappen at the final corner of a lap, it was too late to make a move. But luck was not on Verstappen’s side. Several “Virtual Safety Car” periods forced both drivers to slow down significantly, allowing Hamilton to get extremely close to Verstappen. Eventually, Hamilton was close enough to try a move. He tried, several times, to overtake Verstappen but he was unable to make his moves stick. The stewards, who act as “referees” for Formula One races, agreed that Verstappen had to give Hamilton the lead of the race. Verstappen was forced to slow down and attempted to swap positions with his rival, but Hamilton, who had no idea what was going on, accidentally crashed into the back of Verstappen and couldn’t overtake him. Hamilton complained that Verstappen was “brake testing” him, a technical foul that comes with a large penalties. The race officials were visibly confused and gave Verstappen fifteen seconds worth of penalties for incidents on this lap! The stewards also forced Verstappen to hand Hamilton the lead for the second time, and Hamilton finally retook the lead, going on to win the race. Of course, this is an oversimplified version of the end of the Grand Prix and there are many more factors and incidents that must be analyzed to determine whether the penalties for Verstappen were truly justifiable. I have watched all of these incidents in detail, however, and I can pronounce – with confidence – that there was no reason to give Verstappen a penalty. After the race, Verstappen refused to join the standard podium celebrations. 

Regardless of whether you agree with the penalties or not, this race is over. As Verstappen put it, “it is what it is.” Both drivers must now focus on winning the season finale in Abu Dhabi. Verstappen will obviously be frustrated and disappointed with his result this weekend, and Hamilton will be quite annoyed with Verstappen’s driving style, but the drivers cannot let this affect their performance in the final race. The championship is tied heading into the final race, so neither driver has an advantage! Whoever finishes higher in that race will win the championship.

So far, it seems like the prediction I made last time – that Hamilton was going to win by a tiny margin – might have a decent chance of being correct! It’s almost as if the season just started since both contenders head into the finale being dead even on points. Definitely tune in again to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to find out which driver prevails in this unforgettable battle that is part of the most thrilling Formula One season of this century. It will be worth the watch.

Another battle between Verstappen and Hamilton last weekend.