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Today's Saudi Arabian Grand Prix featured two red flags, three virtual safety cars, three standing starts, no tactically-relevant pit stops under green, and three separate incidents under review between our new world championship co-leaders. And, despite all of that, the podium came out in the exact order most analysts would have predicted going into the weekend.
Let's start with the first start. Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, starting on the front row together after Max Verstappen crashed on his final flying lap in qualifying, got out to a quick 1-2 in formation and each pulled away from Verstappen in third. Over the first ten laps, it looked like a formulaic race with the faster Mercedes entries escaping before the Red Bulls could get in their way on strategy and put up their fight. Then, Mick Schumacher spun at speed into the same wall Charles Leclerc hit in practice on Friday. The safety car came out, the Mercedes entries pitted under the belief they could save a stop while losing just one spot to Verstappen on track each, and the race seemed to be set when Verstappen himself chose not to stop.
Then, race director Michael Masi called a red flag. The barrier was much more damaged than officials believed. Rules dictated that all drivers could change their tires, so Max Verstappen was effectively saved a stop in what was expected to be a one-stop race. Verstappen, suddenly, led heading into a standing restart on fresh tires and had a great chance of taking a win. But a dry track meant Masi dictated a standing restart, meaning Verstappen would need to defend the position from pole.
He failed to do so. Hamilton flew well past him on the start. Rather than checking into second, he made a desperate move: He outran Hamilton into turn 1, braked too late, and intentionally cut the corner to take the lead. As he rejoined ahead of Hamilton, he slowed and abruptly cut into the racing line. The move pushed Hamilton down to third, allowing Esteban Ocon past, and Bottas to fifth, allowing Daniel Ricciardo past. The accordion effect created a massive crash further back in the field in turn 3, retiring his teammate Sergio Perez along with George Russell and Nikita Mazepin.
Another red flag. In that moment, the call of the race seemed to be a choice by the officials. The move was clearly illegal, so how would Verstappen be penalized? Negotiations aired live on the broadcast showed that Red Bull was offered the chance to concede the spot on the start rather than take a traditional penalty, so they took it. Verstappen was moved to third, Hamilton to second, and Ocon was given the lead. Expecting a need to make a few passes, Red Bull chose to put Verstappen on medium tires ahead of the restart with the understood risk that it could cost them time at the end of the stint.
In a signature moment, Verstappen rendered that worry irrelevant on the start. Hamilton had the inside line and a move on Ocon for the race lead, but he left room on the inside. Verstappen took it. He lunged in deep, avoided contact, and came out of turn 1 ahead of both drivers he was moved behind. Hamilton fell to third, but moved back past Ocon a lap later. The race was on.
For the next 20 laps, the battle was about a gap. Lewis Hamilton seemed quicker in sectors 2 and 3, but Max Verstappen was much faster in sector 1. As the wake behind Verstappen alternately helped Hamilton on straights and hurt him in corners, the gap fluctuated between the DRS range of 1 second and 1.5 seconds. Crucially, Verstappen never let Hamilton into DRS range without getting DRS from a lapped car himself. This was true through two virtual safety cars to pick up debris from minor crashes. Then, on the third, it was not. Hamilton closed in when Kimi Raikkonen struggled to keep VSC speeds up ahead of Verstappen. Both got past on that lap with DRS from Raikkonen, but Verstappen could not get far enough away from Hamilton before the DRS sensor point on the next lap. Hamilton got DRS heading into turn 1 and made his move on the outside.
Verstappen, again, made some contact on the inside and forced Hamilton off track. It looked very familiar to anyone who watched the Brazilian GP. He was again asked to give the position back to avoid a penalty; when he attempted to do so on the back straight one lap later, he slowed suddenly on what was effectively the normal racing line and Hamilton seemed unaware the opportunity was happening. The Mercedes clipped the left-rear of the Red Bull in the process, slightly damaging Hamilton's front wing. With this being deemed an inadequate attempt to give a position back, the first move became a five second time penalty. The second will be reviewed after the race. Verstappen, unclear of what had just happened, gave Hamilton the lead back successfully a few laps later; the five second time penalty made that decision moot anyway, but it may give him some leniency with officials after being involved in three on-track incidents with the same driver in one race.
Hamilton flew away for a win by nearly ten seconds after that. Verstappen's medium tires had gone, making that outcome inevitable without any of the wildness that had just happened on track anyway. The time penalty meant he had no gap left to go back and take fast lap with an additional stop, so Hamilton took the bonus point for fast lap, too.
It sets the stage for an unbelievable finish. Counting the off-track shenanigans and an official warning for swerving during Brazil, Max Verstappen has either been officially implicated in or under investigation for an on-track incident with his title rival five times in the past two races. Hamilton won both races. Verstappen's once-significant lead is now entirely gone, and the pair are tied heading into Yas Marina. It is the first tied finale since 1974. Without an incident, the driver who finishes ahead will win the title. In the case of a tie due to a double-retirement, the title will likely be decided by what the stewards think of the incident that causes it.
Formula 1's picture-perfect finale is set. Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen will have their chance to win one of the greatest championships in the history of the sport.
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