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Unseen denouement: Max Verstappen conquers Formula 1 world title after overtaking Lewis Hamilton in the very last lap

What preceded…

Two riders entering the final race with exactly the same number of points. It was only the second time in 72 Formula 1 seasons that that happened, but Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton pulled it off after 21 races. So the 22nd and final one, at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, had to make the decision. With a slight advantage for Verstappen, who had won one race more than his big rival and would therefore become world champion in a tie.

Mercedes was previously the favorite in Abu Dhabi. After all, the last three races were each won by Hamilton, and the modified layout of the Yas Marina Circuit would be in favor of the Briton. There was nothing to notice in qualifying: Verstappen took pole for Hamilton with force majeure. Verstappen did choose to start on the softer tyre, Hamilton started on the medium tyre. A gamble from Verstappen: after all, the soft tire offers more grip for a few laps, but does wear out very quickly.

How did the start go?

All week there has been speculation about a possible collision between the two title contenders. And see: it was almost a hit in the opening round. Despite his softer tire, Verstappen made a bad start and saw Hamilton immediately steam past. The Dutchman then tried to take the lead a little further, in turn six, with an attack from afar.

It almost came to a collision between Hamilton and Verstappen on the first lap: the Dutchman forced Hamilton off the track with a late attack, after which Hamilton cut the next corner and took the lead back.

Verstappen just made it into the corner, but in doing so he forced Hamilton off the track. The Briton was able to avoid a collision and then cut the next corner, maintaining the lead and immediately taking a good second bonus on Verstappen. Race management did not intervene: Hamilton remained first, Verstappen had to chase.

How did the victory come about?

After the opening lap, things looked bad for Verstappen for a while. His gamble to start on the soft rubber backfired: an attack on Hamilton was out of the question and after a few laps the Briton started to walk further and further away. In the 13th of 58 laps, Verstappen had had enough: he made his first pit stop and put on the hard tires. Hamilton did the same a lap later.

Hamilton entered the track in free air, while Verstappen was in traffic. He quickly took the McLaren of Lando Norris, but the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz Jr. – an ex-team mate of Verstappen – turned out to be a bigger challenge. Verstappen eventually got past, but had to watch as Hamilton built up his lead to nine seconds.

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Fortunately for Verstappen, he still had a joker at the time: his Red Bull teammate Sergio Pérez, who had taken the lead after the pit stops of both title rivals. The Mexican got Hamilton after him and on the two long straights he defended his position like a lion. Pérez then did everything he could in the ensuing twisty sections to hold up Hamilton. With success: the gap between Hamilton and Verstappen was suddenly just over a second.

Verstappen was then again unable to keep up with the Mercedes, but the difference was all in all limited: around five seconds. In lap 37, Verstappen played his last trump card when Antonio Giovinazzi had to park his Alfa Romeo with mechanical breakdown. A virtual safety car phase was declared: Verstappen entered the pits for the second time to get fresh tires.

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Thanks to the virtual safety car, Verstappen lost much less time than with a normal pit stop (since the cars drive slower around the circuit, ed.). Mercedes did not react and let Hamilton stay out. In the last 20 laps it became a game of cat and mouse: Hamilton had to defend a lead of about 17 seconds on much more worn tires.

Verstappen initially made good time on his competitor, but after a few laps the pace started to pick up. The battle seemed over. Until Nicholas Latifi drilled his Williams into the wall with six laps to go. This time the safety car came onto the track and that was terrible news for leader Hamilton.

Given the short distance to the finish, there was a chance that the race would end behind the safety car. And would he take the risk of falling behind Verstappen and having to overtake him on track? He intends to continue on his old tires and thus maintain his leadership position. Verstappen did all he could do: make a third pit stop for a new set of soft, very fast rubber. In the final lap, Verstappen and Hamilton went side by side twice, but Verstappen turned out to be unstoppable on the soft tires and became world champion!

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For the first time since 2013, Formula 1 has a world champion who does not drive for Mercedes. Verstappen is also the first Dutchman to conquer the title, and in what way: this will be talked about for years. Especially in the Netherlands, which will undoubtedly have a long party night ahead. Just like many Flemish. Mercedes can console itself with an eighth consecutive constructors’ title.

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