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Max Verstappen stuns Lewis Hamilton to win Formula One championship in controversial finish

Max Verstappen won the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and the Formula One world championship on Dec. 12 after passing rival Lewis Hamilton on the last lap. (Video: Reuters)

The Formula One championship came down to a winner-take-all final race and one lap of racing in which Max Verstappen, the eager young rival, stormed past Lewis Hamilton to win his first title Sunday in a dramatic and controversial finish to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in the United Arab Emirates.

For most of the race, Verstappen and his Red Bull team had no answer for the speed and efficiency of Mercedes’s Hamilton, who led most of the 58-lap race. After the safety car came out following a crash, race director Michael Masi decided to allow lapped cars to overtake the safety car on the restart, with Red Bull boss Christian Horner urging him to do so over the track radios.

That helped Verstappen, who was in second place but was several cars behind Hamilton because he had pitted, for the restart and set up the final-lap drama. The decision resulted in a chaotic lap, with Verstappen, running on fresh soft tires from his pit stop, pulling ahead of Hamilton, whose hard tires had not been changed since the 14th lap.

Mercedes filed two protests after the race. The first concerned whether Verstappen had overtaken Hamilton before the safety car period ended, and that protest was rejected. The second, on the unlapping of the cars, also was rejected, and some four hours after the conclusion of the race, Verstappen’s championship was official. A Mercedes spokesperson said in a statement (via Formula One) that the team planned to appeal and has 72 hours to do so.

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Hamilton was silent in radio communications with his team as he slowed down in the moments after the race. Verstappen, who burst into tears after crossing the finish line, said it was “unbelievable. I kept fighting the whole race. I had the opportunity in the last lap. It’s incredible. I’m still having a cramp. It’s insane.”

Mercedes was angry, with team boss Toto Wolff expressing his disbelief over the radio and former Formula One driver Damon Hill telling Sky Sports: “I don’t think any of the regulations are blindingly clear. Unfortunately, messages were coming out [from the race director] that were contradictory. I do think this championship has been run in a different way. They have tried to let the racing happen and race on track to the very end.”

David Coulthard, another former driver, told England’s Channel 4: “This is a complex sport. None of us like the decisions taking place in the stewards room when the champagne has been popped. In hindsight, could the stewards have done a tidier job? Yes. Has there been something played out which is controversial? Yes. This is a really difficult decision.”

After the trophy presentation, Verstappen still was in a state of disbelief.

“Sometimes miracles happen,” he said. “Lewis is an amazing driver, an amazing competitor. They made it really, really hard for us, and I think everyone loved to see [the rivalry]. Of course, the two teams ran up against each other and we had some tough times, but I think that’s all part of the sport and its emotion. Everyone wants to win, and it could have gone either way, of course, today.”

Hamilton vs. Verstappen — the all-time great against the brash youngster — had echoes of some of the great auto racing rivalries, such as the classic between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. Their rivalry came down to Abu Dhabi, with the two tied with 369.5 points and Verstappen holding the tiebreaker because he had won nine races, one more than Hamilton. Only twice had the title chase come down to two drivers in a tie.

Hamilton, the British great who turns 37 in January, has dominated Formula One since his 2007 debut, finishing one point behind Kimi Raikkonen in that year’s title chase and then winning his first of seven drivers’ championships in 2008. He also holds several Formula One records that include career wins and top-three finishes. Verstappen, a 24-year-old Dutch driver, has shown flashes of brilliance, employing an aggressive style that often turns to impatience on the track in a season in which he hoped to win the championship trophy for the first time.

Off the track, the two, as well as their teams, have had an acrimonious relationship, fueled by clashes, collisions and close calls. There was a dramatic bump during July’s British Grand Prix that sent Verstappen careening into a wall, as well as when Verstappen went airborne and his rear wheel nearly hit Hamilton’s head at the Italian Grand Prix in September.

The previous Sunday at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, an apparent misunderstanding led to a collision when Verstappen was instructed to let Hamilton pass on the 37th lap to compensate for a violation earlier in the race and hit the brakes as Hamilton closed behind him, causing Hamilton to rear-end him. Hamilton won the race and later called out Verstappen, who finished second and skipped the usual post-race ceremony with the top three finishers.

“We’re equal on points now, and I think that’s really exciting, of course, for the whole championship and Formula One in general,” Verstappen said later. “But … I think lately we’re talking more about white lines and penalties than actually proper Formula One racing, and that’s, I think, a little bit of a shame.”

Against that backdrop, the two arrived for an epic showdown in the desert.

Hamilton had trailed by 19 points when he began to reverse his fortunes last month, using a three-race winning streak to draw even with Verstappen following last week’s win in Saudi Arabia.

Formula One drivers earn points for finishing in the top 10 and can earn additional points for running the fastest lap among that group. The scoring allotment gradually decreases from 25 points for first place to one point for 10th place. Hamilton was in position to win his fifth consecutive title by finishing in the top 10 above Verstappen, but it was not to be.

The team title, called the constructors’ championship, also was decided Sunday, but it was less dramatic, with Hamilton’s Mercedes team winning after leading Verstappen’s Red Bull in points and speed.

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