Verstappen crowned world champion despite Mercedes' protests
Abu Dhabi (AFP) – Max Verstappen emerged from a Formula One season like no other as a worthy world champion, the Dutch driver prising the crown from Lewis Hamilton on the final lap of the final race on Sunday.
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The road to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was marked by moments of high drama, but no one could have predicted the best would be saved till last.
The tension spilled over from the track to the stewards' room when Mercedes lodged appeals against the outcome, both of which were rejected.
The German team, which had the consolation of winning an unprecedented eighth consecutive constructors' title, announced their intention to lodge one final appeal, so the drivers' title could still end in the hands of lawyers.
With a handful of laps to go in the title decider Hamilton had his hands on an unprecedented eighth world title.
As the 36-year-old Briton coasted towards a win that would have bettered Michael Schumacher's seven world crowns, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was heard to say: "We need a miracle."
It came in the unlikely shape of Nicholas Latifi, who crashed his Williams four laps from the end, triggering the appearance of the safety car. Verstappen promptly pulled into the pits for new tyres, while Hamilton did not.
When racing resumed for the 58th and closing lap, Verstappen on his fresh tyres barged past Hamilton to take the chequered flag and his first title, sparking joy on the Red Bull pitwall and fury at Mercedes.
As 24-year-old Verstappen celebrated, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff was thumbing through the FIA's regulations to check the protocol on safety car procedures.
Sure enough, the men from Mercedes lodged appeals against the result.
Long after the spectators had departed the Yas Marina track, an FIA hearing delivered its verdict, rejecting the protests to confirm Verstappen as the first Dutchman to lift the crown.
But the matter could rumble on for days, with Mercedes convinced they have a valid case.
Latifi's crash and the subsequent safety car had effectively set up a one-lap 'penalty shoot-out' for the title.
Verstappen and Hamilton started that lap wheel to wheel but the Red Bull driver pulled away to take the chequered flag.
It was a compelling end to a championship for the ages, played out over 22 spell-binding acts from Bahrain to Baku, Austin to Abu Dhabi.
"It's insane," Verstappen said. "My goal when I was little was to be a Formula One driver. You dream of podiums and victories. But when they tell you that you are world champion, it's incredible."
Hamilton was magnanimous in defeat, embracing his nemesis and saying: "Congratulations to Max and his team.
"We gave it everything this last part of the season and never gave up, that's the most important thing."
Verstappen and Hamilton had approached the winner-takes-all denouement in the desert level on points. It was the first time two title rivals had been in that position since 1974.
That was due to Hamilton's storming end-of-season run, which kicked off in Brazil when he defied the odds and overcame a pile of penalty points. He kept the momentum going in Qatar and again among the chaos of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
Fittingly the title protagonists filled the front row in Abu Dhabi with Verstappen on pole after a flying lap in qualifying.
But Hamilton got off to a blinding start, beating Verstappen to the first bend.
The Dutch driver lunged to reclaim the lead on Turn Seven, forcing his arch-rival off the track.
The Briton rejoined in front, but the race stewards controversially decided no investigation was necessary, sparking incredulity in the Red Bull enclosure.
After various pit stops, a barnstorming performance by Verstappen's teammate Sergio Perez to frustrate Hamilton when the Mexican temporarily held the lead, and a virtual safety car, it looked like Hamilton would emerge victorious.
But this magical season still had one last trick up its sleeve, leaving a gifted and pugnacious Verstappen to depose Hamilton.
Verstappen's fans in the Netherlands erupted in celebrations.
"What an unbelievable end. I have lost my voice," Tom Alsem, 30, said, dressed head to toe in orange at a bar in the Hague.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte tweeted it was "a historic day for Dutch sport".
© 2021 AFP