Lewis Hamilton won a wacky and baffling Saudi Arabian Grand Prix to tie Max Verstappen in the points standings with one race to go in the 2021 Formula 1 season.
"That's got to be the craziest race I remember," Hamilton's race engineer Peter Bonnington radioed after the race.
Hamilton and Verstappen dueled at myriad points throughout the grand prix. They collided too. Verstappen went off the track twice while making passes of Hamilton, and Hamilton ran into the back of Verstappen's car before the final corner as Verstappen apparently slowed to let him by.
Verstappen went off the track to defend a pass from Hamilton entering Turn 1 on lap 37 of the 50-lap race. He drove away from Hamilton over the next lap and Red Bull instructed him to give the place back. Hamilton, unaware that Verstappen was going to slow down on the final straightaway on lap 38 to do that, drove into the back of Verstappen's car as he slowed on the racing line.
The impact damaged the front wing of Hamilton's car and seemed to put his chances of a win in peril. But the damage wasn't too severe and Hamilton then chased down Verstappen on his own. Verstappen was on the medium compound tires and Hamilton was on the hard compound. Verstappen's tires were unable to make it to the end of the race with sufficient grip and Hamilton's more durable tires lasted through the end.
Verstappen was also given a five-second penalty for driving off the track and gaining an advantage on Hamilton during the race.
"This sport is more about penalties than racing," Verstappen said after the race.
Hours after the race, Verstappen was penalized again. This time he got a 10-second penalty for causing a collision with Hamilton when he slowed abruptly. The penalty, however, didn't mean anything in terms of his race result because he finished so far ahead of Bottas.
How Verstappen got the lead
Hamilton started from pole and grabbed the lead of the race right away. He was unchallenged with teammate Valtteri Bottas in second and Verstappen in third.
Mick Schumacher crashed 10 laps into the race and brought out a safety car. Mercedes pitted both its drivers and Red Bull and Verstappen decided to stay out on track. Mercedes put the hard compound tires on Hamilton's car with the hope of keeping him on track until the end of the race.
Four laps after Mercedes and other teams pitted, Formula 1 decided a red flag was needed for repairs to the barrier that Schumacher hit. That red flag allowed Verstappen a free pit stop. Had the race restarted without a red flag, Verstappen would have needed to stop at some point and (likely) lost track position to Hamilton and Bottas.
Instead, the red flag allowed Verstappen to change tires without anyone passing him.
Another red flag came out on the restart of the race. Hamilton got the lead off the start but Verstappen went off track as he tried to defend on the outside. Esteban Ocon took the lead in the middle of all that mess and then a big crash happened behind involving Sergio Perez, Nicholas Latifi, Nikita Mazepin and others.
It’s imperative to note that Verstappen’s tires would not have lasted long enough to defend against Hamilton. Hamilton dropped over two seconds back of Verstappen after they collided but he quickly made up that time as Verstappen’s tires wore down. Verstappen was over eight seconds back of Hamilton in the waning laps of the race after he got passed before Hamilton slowed down to conserve his lead and the car in the final two laps.
It's straight-up for the title
Hamilton entered Sunday’s race in Saudi Arabia eight points back of Verstappen. With the win and the fastest lap (25 points plus one), Hamilton scored eight more points than Verstappen on Sunday and now they each have 369.5 points entering Abu Dhabi.
The tie means that whoever finishes ahead of the other at Abu Dhabi in a week will win the championship. The only way they could tie — and Verstappen would win the title — is if one driver finishes ninth and the other driver finishes 10th and has the fastest lap of the race.
Abu Dhabi and its long straights would seem to favor Mercedes and Hamilton. But Red Bull showed on Sunday that it had a car that could compete with Mercedes. Abu Dhabi should be an extremely close race.