Formula One‘s script writers have served up a season fit for Hollywood this season, but will the finale stick the landing?
Tied at 369.5 points apiece heading into the final race in Abu Dhabi, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen are only the second pair of leading drivers in the history of the sport to arrive at the final race level on points.
The only previous case came in 1974, where Emerson Fittipaldi’s fourth place finish was enough to take the title over Clay Regazzoni at the United States Grand Prix in a race marred by the fatal crash of Austrian driver Helmuth Koinigg.
F1 is no stranger to dramatic finales, though the unparalleled dominance of Mercedes in recent years has quashed the thrilling showdowns that fans savor. Only once in the last six seasons has the championship fight gone to the last race, and even that was to decide which of Mercedes’ two drivers would take the title in 2016.
But this season may well be remembered as one of the most exciting in history. This weekend’s face-off in Abu Dhabi will bring down the curtain — momentarily — on one of the most gripping rivalries in sport this year.
The pretender Verstappen versus veteran champion Hamilton; Red Bull versus Mercedes; team principals Toto Wolff versus Christian Horner — an array of dynamics have underpinned a title scrap fought intensely both on and off the track from the outset.
Tale of the tape
The rivalry between the two drivers has simmered all season, bubbling over at various points.
At the British Grand Prix in July, the pair were involved in a high-speed collision on the opening lap that saw Verstappen subsequently forced to endure Hamilton’s jubilant celebrations from a hospital bed — a precautionary measure.
The Red Bull driver tweeted that Hamilton’s celebrations had been “disrespectful and unsportsmanlike,” with Horner fanning the flames by labeling the Brit’s driving “completely out of order.”
Another collision followed at the Italian Grand Prix — this time ruling both drivers out of the race. Hamilton alleged Verstappen had “pushed him wide,” telling reporters that he felt “lucky to be alive.”
If the heat was high at Monza, at last week’s inaugural race in Saudi Arabia, it reached inferno levels.
An enthralling race — eventually won by Hamilton to level the points heading into Abu Dhabi — saw the pair come together on multiple occasions, climaxing with a bizarre crash that saw Hamilton run into the back of Verstappen, who had been slowing to concede first place due to an earlier incident.
Hamilton accused his rival of “brake-testing” — an allegation that Verstappen rejected — and told reporters that the 24-year-old was “over the limit for sure.” The tension was palpable as the pair took the podium for the post-race trophy presentations, barely an acknowledgment passing between them.
It is in this fiery context that the Abu Dhabi showdown looms, and with it, the concern that the most tantalizing of finales could be decided by a collision. Leading Hamilton by nine race wins to eight, Verstappen heads into this weekend knowing that should neither driver finish, he would theoretically take his maiden championship.
Shadows of Schumacher
Not only are there the precedents of incidents this season, but also in history — both involving Michael Schumacher, a legendary racer often compared to Dutchman Verstappen as a result of their aggressive driving style.
In 1994, championship leaders Schumacher and Damon Hill headed to the final race in Australia separated by a point. On lap 36, Schumacher hit a wall and upon reentering the track, collided with the overtaking Hill, causing both to ultimately retire from the race.
The collision was deemed a racing incident by stewards and Schumacher took his first of seven world titles, but three years later, another collision in his final race saw a different outcome.
Leading Williams driver Jacques Villeneuve by a point before the finale in Spain, Schumacher was deemed to have purposely turned into the overtaking Canadian in a collision that put the German out of the race. Villenueve took the title with a third place finish, and Schumacher was later stripped of his points for the season.
In his race notes ahead of Abu Dhabi, race director Michael Masi made specific references to a number of clauses involving fair racing, warning of the potential for points deductions in cases of “unsportsmanlike conduct.”
Masi reminded drivers of potential penalties for “any infringement of the principles of fairness in competition, behavior in an unsportsmanlike manner or attempt to influence the result of a competition in a way that is contrary to sporting ethics.”
‘To finish first, you’ve got to finish’
Both sides have explicitly voiced their desire to avoid such a scenario, with Horner insisting yesterday that “Max wants to win this championship on the track,” reiterating that his driver would not resort to crash tactics in pursuit of his first championship.
“He’s a hard racer but a fair racer, and I expect no different this weekend,” Horner told the Times of London.
“Nobody wants to win this championship in a gravel trap or in a stewards’ inquiry. To finish first, you’ve got to finish — that’s been our mantra throughout this season.”
Verstappen echoed his team principal’s comments at the pre-race press conference, telling reporters that drivers “do not think about these things.”
“You try to do the best you can and win as a team. I try to be the best prepared, and I am trying to win this weekend.”
Hamilton followed suit. “I can’t control these things around me, just my preparation and how I conduct myself,” he added.
On the subject of points deductions, the Brit admitted that he saw any potential punishments as “fair,” but reiterated his desire to win without such interventions.
“It’s happened in the past,” Hamilton said. “I think it’s fair. Hopefully, it won’t come to that.
“I’m here to do my job and I don’t want to see the stewards any more than they see me.”
Verstappen added: “I know what’s in the sporting code, nobody needs to be reminded of that.”
Neither will any sports fans need reminding of where to be this Sunday. Collision or not, drama is guaranteed.
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