For only the second time in Formula 1 history, two drivers go into the final Grand Prix of a season tied for the championship.
After 21 races, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen head into the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday facing a winner-takes-all showdown. “It is a dream scenario,” said Daniel Ricciardo of McLaren.
Hamilton of Mercedes is chasing a record-breaking eighth title, Verstappen of Red Bull his first.
“It’s definitely an incredibly intense year and time,” Hamilton said. “I’ve raced for 28 years. I’ve had so many intense battles through karting, through single-seaters, and this is one of them.
“Of course, this is the pinnacle of the sport, so everything’s heightened, everything’s at the absolute max and so much weighs on it, but it’s great for the sport, it’s great for the fans. They’re enjoying it more than ever, and I’m enjoying it as a racing driver.”
There is tension between them on the track, and they have had a number of incidents, including crashes in the British and Italian Grands Prix.
At the last race, in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, Hamilton beat Verstappen, who served two time penalties. The first, of five seconds, was for forcing Hamilton off the circuit. Over the radio, Hamilton described Verstappen as “crazy.”
A 10-second penalty followed for “erratic” braking, described in a report by the race stewards, which led to Hamilton running into the back of Verstappen.
After leading by 19 points after consecutive wins in the United States and Mexican races, Verstappen’s advantage has been erased following three successive victories for Hamilton.
“Basically, we start again like we started the season,” Verstappen said. “We’re equal on points now, and that’s really exciting for the whole championship and Formula 1 in general.”
Many people hope that the race will be clean on Sunday and the title decided without penalties.
“Of course, we do care how we win the title,” Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, said. “We want to win it on the track, not in the stewards’ room, not in a gravel trap.
“It’s been a tough fight all the way through the year, there has been some fantastic racing between these two drivers, and I hope it’s a fair and clean race in Abu Dhabi.”
Despite the run of defeats to Hamilton, Horner said he would have no problem raising the morale of Verstappen or his team.
“At the beginning of the year, if you’d given us this chance, this one shot to win this world championship at the last race in Abu Dhabi after 21 races of intense battle with Mercedes, we would have all, as a team, bitten your arm off for that,” Horner said.
If neither driver scores a point, Verstappen would be champion because he has won nine times, Hamilton eight.
Formula 1 has a history of last-race incidents that have decided championships. Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve collided in 1997 at Jerez, Spain.
Schumacher was stripped of all his points for the season for what was ruled a deliberate attempt to end his rival’s race. Villeneuve became champion.
Three years earlier, Damon Hill lost the chance to win the title in Adelaide, Australia, after being hit by Schumacher. The stewards did not impose a penalty.
Looking to the race on Sunday, Hill, the 1996 champion, said: “There are some people who drive with absolutely no compromises whatsoever, and I think Max is one of those people. He’s very skillful, brilliant, and it’s exciting to watch. I think Lewis, who has to deal with that, is now very cautious. He’s not intimidated, but he’s very wary of Max and probably rightly so.”
Current drivers are also enthralled by the battle.
“It’s really what this sport needs, it’s what you hope for every year, a battle like this,” said Ricciardo, who was a teammate of Verstappen’s at Red Bull from 2016 to 2018. “You have the veteran with the most records in Lewis on one hand, and then you have the youngest race winner on the other.
“They’re going toe to toe and it’s a really cool battle, a great story. Some envy not being a part of it, but ultimately for the sport, and as a fan of the sport, it’s a dream scenario.”
George Russell of Williams joins Hamilton at Mercedes next season. He can appreciate what both drivers have achieved this season.
“Red Bull and Max probably had the upper hand at the start of the year, but things have swayed more in Lewis’ hands in recent events,” Russell said.
“They are both driving excellently, and it is great to see a proper battle going on between the two.”
Mercedes outscored Red Bull by 23 points in Saudi Arabia and leads the constructors’ championship by 28.
One of the reasons for the close fights between the drivers and teams has been the success of the budget cap.
In the past, teams had no limit on the amount of money they could spend. This season, they have been capped at $145 million.
“This is the first year we’ve applied the cost cap, and Mercedes and Red Bull have been unable to turn the dial up to 11,” said Ross Brawn, Formula 1’s managing director, motorsports. “They’re not allowed to.
“That’s meant the championship has stayed close the whole season. We’ve not had one team running away with it because they’ve been able to throw massive resources at any issue.”
It has led to “a battle for the ages” between Hamilton and Verstappen.
“Having two drivers within the same team brings an odd dynamic, but when you’ve two teams, and every mechanic, engineer and team principal on those teams are trying to beat the other, it adds a whole different aspect to it, so we are blessed this year,” Brawn said.
History beckons for Hamilton. If he wins on Sunday, he will become the first driver with eight championships. He is level with Schumacher at seven.
Hamilton and Mercedes have found form at the right time of the season when it was most needed to reel in Verstappen.
“In Saudi Arabia, I saw a passion and excitement within my team that I don’t think I’d seen in 10 years, which was amazing,” Hamilton said.
“We continue to fight, no matter what we’ve experienced as a team. Probably all of us, no matter what we face, we just keep pushing, never give up.”
Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal, said, “It is all or nothing in Abu Dhabi.”
Will the emotions of both drivers and teams be kept in check?
“The emotions are running very high, but I don’t think we need to keep a lid on it,” Wolff said.
“There is a lot of respect between the teams for each other’s achievements,” he said, “and that is why, as long as we have a clean race, fighting for a drivers’ world championship, it was a great season.”