A race on the second fastest track on the F1 calendar, around a narrow street circuit with close walls, had the potential to be chaotic. And the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah truly delivered.
The penultimate race of what has been a thrilling season threw a lot of curveballs to the main title protagonists Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen through the course of the weekend and in the end, the former prevailed for his eighth win of the season.
Hamilton’s win with a bonus point for the fastest lap meant he is drawn equal with Verstappen on 369.5 points going into the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi.
As exciting and incident-filled the weekend was, it will also be remembered for how the title fight turned nasty with Verstappen’s driving veering towards extremely dangerous.
The incident part of the weekend started on Saturday when Verstappen made the costliest mistake of the season. On his final qualifying lap, the Dutch driver was on course for the fastest lap of the evening to pip Hamilton from his provisional pole position. The Red Bull driver was up three-tenths of a second on Hamilton’s time but hit the wall in the penultimate corner to settle for third place on the grid.
At the start, Verstappen could not gain any place as Hamilton led from his teammate Valtteri Bottas and was in complete control of the proceedings until Mick Schumacher crashed on lap 10 which brought out the safety car.
Under Safety Car, both the Mercedes drivers opted to take a pit-stop as it costs less to stop when the rest of the grid is going at a controlled speed than during normal race conditions. However, with not much to gain by doing what the leaders did, Verstappen chose to stay out and took the race lead before a red flag was shown on lap 14 to stop the race as the barriers needed extensive repairs.
This played into Red Bull’s hands as it allowed Verstappen to change tyres at the red flag and maintain track position. At the second restart, Hamilton got a better launch and got past Verstappen but the latter braked later and re-passed Hamilton by going wide off-the-track, a clear violation of rules. To avoid hitting Verstappen, Hamilton took evasive action by allowing Alpine’s Esteban Ocon to take the second spot.
However, before the first lap was finished, a huge crash for Red Bull’s Sergio Perez meant there was a second red flag. The race director, meanwhile, asked Verstappen to give up the place he gained illegally.
This meant a third re-start, Ocon started on pole with Hamilton and Verstappen following him. Verstappen got a good start this time and took the lead of the race in the first corner and controlled the race for the next 20 odd laps.
However, he was on a set of medium tyres that were less durable than Hamilton’s hard-compound tyres and the latter kept attacking Verstappen.
On lap 37, with his tyres losing performance, Verstappen came under attack from Hamilton who passed him on the main straight. Verstappen, like he did in Brazil, braked late into the corner, went wide off the track and cut back ahead of Hamilton to stay in the lead.
Close call: Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton battle for track position during the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia. – Getty Images
However, he was quickly told to give up the position as he gained an advantage going off the track. It is here that things got ugly as Verstappen appeared to slow down to let Hamilton pass by before the final DRS detection zone so that he can be behind by less than one second and utilise the DRS advantage on the main straight.
Hamilton, though, wasn’t ready to pass Verstappen there. At one point, Verstappen braked hard, forcing the Brit to hit the Red Bull from behind and suffer some minor front wing damage.
Verstappen then accelerated and continued to lead the race before he was asked to give up the place, again. On lap 42, he let Hamilton pass by just before DRS detection point and immediately got past him, but the stewards judged he did not yield enough and forced him to do it once more.
Eventually, on lap 43, Hamilton took the lead of the race and won his 103rd Grand Prix while Verstappen got his car home in second place. Behind them, Bottas and Ocon had a thrilling fight for third place with the former finally making it to the podium in a photo finish.
Verstappen was given a five-second time penalty for forcing Hamilton wide on lap 37 and another ten-second penalty for brake-testing his rival which the stewards labelled as ‘dangerous driving’.
For the first time since 1974, two drivers go into the final race on equal points though Verstappen is still classified as the leader thanks to his nine wins to Hamilton’s eight.
The equation is simple: the driver who finishes ahead of his rival will clinch the title unless both take each other out in which case Verstappen will prevail.
While it promises to be an exciting finale with all to play for, it is hard not to think of a situation where Verstappen tries to do a Michael Schumacher and take out his rival like the German did in 1994 to Damon Hill to get his first title.