Grand Prix racing, the world's pre-eminent motorsport, is potentially headed for an extraordinary moment: The last Formula 1 race of 2021 could firmly establish Lewis Hamilton as the greatest competitive driver of all time.
On Sunday, Hamilton, the British star of team Mercedes-AMG Petronas, won the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, tying Red Bull Racing Honda's Max Verstappen in championship points for the season and setting up a tiebreaker for the ages at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday, Dec. 12.
Formula 1 said that, even though the two are tied on points, Verstappen "technically maintains the lead" because he has one more victory this season than Hamilton. Nonetheless, the driver who finishes faster next week will in all likelihood take the 2021 championship.
With a victory, Hamilton would surpass Michael Schumacher, the retired German legend, when it comes to world titles. Both have seven. Verstappen has never won the title.
Hamilton has also made headlines off-track in the last few years, speaking out about human rights, gender inequality, racism and homophobia. He received a knighthood as part of Queen Elizabeth II's New Year's honors list for 2021.
However, his presence in Saudi Arabia has sparked criticism, with the human rights group Amnesty International accusing the country of using the Grand Prix as a "PR stunt" to "deflect attention from its brutal crackdown on activists and human rights defenders.”
“The sport has taken a choice to be here,” he said. “And whether it’s right or wrong, while we are here, it’s important we do try to raise awareness.”
In the days ahead of November’s Qatar Grand Prix, Hamilton also announced that he would wear an LGBTQ flag on his helmet to highlight human rights in a country where homosexuality is illegal.
Jean Todt, president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, Formula 1’s governing body, told CNBC in remarks that aired Friday that it isn’t FIA’s role to “get involved with political issues." He said he believed that being in Saudi Arabia, despite its record, encourages dialogue.
Hamilton won Sunday despite facing sometimes chaotic race conditions.
His car and Verstappen's made contact during the race, and Verstappen was later penalized.
"I’ve been racing a long time, but that was definitely, that was incredibly tough," Hamilton said after the race.
It was Hamilton's third win in a row, a streak that has given him momentum despite Verstappen's tying the Formula 1 record for most podium (first-, second- or third-place) finishes in a season. Verstappen took the championship points lead in May with a win in Monaco. On Sunday he finished second.
Red Bull has also fallen behind Mercedes, by 28 points, for the annual constructors' title, given to the top team.
Hamilton told trackside reporters Sunday that he planned to keep his head down and focus on winning in Abu Dhabi.
Yet two drivers being tied for the world title with only one race to go in the season has happened only once before in Formula 1 history, when Emerson Fittipaldi emerged victorious over Clay Regazzoni after the last flag of 1974 dropped.
Hamilton already has the most Grand Prix wins, 103 to Schumacher's 91, as recognized by Guinness World Records. But at 36, Hamilton, from Stevenage, England, is more than 10 years older than the sport's freshman drivers.
When Hamilton started in the 2000s, he competed against Schumacher. Today he races against the German's son, Mick, who drives for Haas.
It seems clear Hamilton has been thinking about his legacy, particularly because when he became the youngest driver to win a world championship, in 2008, he was Formula 1's first and only Black driver.
Today he still is.
After taking note of the sport's lack of diversity, particularly among drivers, Hamilton launched the Hamilton Commission in 2020 to address barriers to motorsport for people of color.
That year, amid global protests over the murder of George Floyd by police, he became an outspoken supporter of Black Lives Matter. At the Austrian Grand Prix that year he took a knee in a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. Most of his fellow drivers joined him.
As part of his contract with the Mercedes team, Hamilton ensured the organization would invest in his support of diversity and inclusion for motorsport.
His concerns are coming from a personal place. There were times when he was a child, competing in karting, when he and his father faced racial epithets at tracks.
When he was a 10-year-old karting champ, Hamilton, whose father got him a go-cart and helped him hone his skills at an early age after recognizing his passion for the sport, met Ron Dennis, a top Formula 1 team boss at the time.
Three years later Dennis pledged to support Hamilton's racing career so long as he continued to go to school in earnest.
It's that kind of support that Hamilton wants to create for others.
"Being the first Black anything is a proud and lonely walk," he told Gayle King of CBS "This Morning" in late 2020. "We were always the only Black family on the scene."
At the height of his career, Hamilton said, "I realized that that has barely shifted" as he vowed to focus on creating new opportunities in a sport that has historically developed its talent with the help of households that could afford constant travel, expensive gear and personal trainers.
"There's been an awakening and an opportunity to use your voice," he told King.
On Friday the Hollywood Reporter said a bidding war had erupted over a motorsport-related project involving some of the industry's biggest names as well as, possibly, Hamilton's.
Asked last year by King if he's pondered retirement, the racer said, "I love doing what I’m doing, and honestly winning this seventh world title is an incredible thing, but I think we’ve still not won this fight for racial equality."
The athlete with a global fan base and a highly ranked income has become the face of a sport that is trying to rekindle its relationship with American motorsport fans while also expanding its fan base in the Middle East.
Formula 1 returned to the United States in 2012 after a five year absence by launching the U.S. Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.
In the last two years, Formula 1 has allowed Netflix viewers inside some of those racing teams that each spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on drivers, engineering, equipment, and marketing.
Sports business guru Joe Pompliano tweeted Sunday that it's got nothing on the Grand Prix season's spectacular ending.
"Netflix is great … ," he said. "But Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen being tied for the World Drivers Championship with just one race to go is the best marketing for Formula 1 in years."