Max Verstappen is Formula One Champion after dramatic last lap overtake

At the end of 22 races, and with title rivals Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton locked together on 369.5 points apiece, there could only be one winner…

And for 53 laps of a 58-lap race, it looked absolutely certain that a record breaking eighth world title was in the palm of Lewis Hamilton’s hands, the defending champion nursing a comfortable advantage of over ten seconds.

Red Bull Racing team boss Christian Horner said they needed a miracle to turn things around, and then they got just that, as Nicholas Latifi crashed into the barriers with five laps remaining. It meant that Verstappen could dive into the pits for a ‘free’ pit stop for fresh soft compound tyres whilst Hamilton was still out on his old hard Pirellis.

And when racing resumed on the final lap as the Safety Car pulled in, the inevitable came to pass, Verstappen diving ahead on fresh tyres and maintaining position to the line and with it, his first world title. There was still controversy aplenty about the questionable call from race director Michael Masi, who initially said the five lapped cars between Hamilton would not be allowed to overtake before changing his stance, seemingly against normal protocol.

It left Hamilton a sitting duck when racing resumed, the 11 second advantage he had worked so hard for all race disappearing in a heartbeat and somewhat gifting the win and title to his rival. Mercedes launched two different appeals afterward but to no avail, meaning the result stood and Verstappen was champion in controversial circumstances.

“It’s unbelievable, I mean throughout the race I kept fighting and of course that opportunity on the last lap it’s incredible,” said the victorious Verstappen afterward. “I still have the cramp, it’s insane. I mean I don’t know what to say, these guys here in my team and of course Honda as well, they deserve it and I love them so much. I really, really enjoy working with them since 2016 but this year has been incredible.

“I also want to say thank you to Checo, he was driving his heart out today, was great team work and he’s an amazing teammate. To my team, I think they know I love them, and we can do this for ten, fifteen years together. There is no reason to change ever.

“I want to stay with them the rest of my life. Also Helmut and Christian for trusting me to be in the team in 2016. Our goal of course was to win this championship and now we have done that.”

It was the dream start for Hamilton, but a charging Verstappen dived down the inside into Turn 7, seemingly pushing Hamilton wide off the circuit.

Verstappen argued that Hamilton left the door open wide enough to have to concede back position, but the race directors ruled otherwise, and Hamilton retained track position. And with Hamilton starting on the longer running medium compound Pirelli tyre, it was certainly advantage to the Englishman.

Yet in this season of so many twists and turns, with only two laps gone in a 58-lap title decider, there was still a long, long way to go in this most tense of title battles. Naturally, Verstappen was the first to dive into the pits on lap 14, shedding his soft rubber for a fresh set of hard compound tyres.

It put the Dutchman back out on track in fourth position but more importantly, Hamilton had the advantage, reacting to Red Bull a lap later with his own set of hard tyres to also take him to the end, shuffling back into the pack in second position.

There was still one problem left for Hamilton in his quest for a record breaking eighth world title, and that was the second Red Bull of Sergio Perez ahead of him and still to pit. And the Mexican proved the ultimate wing man, holding up Hamilton for two more laps longer than the Brit would have wanted and allowing his Red Bull teammate to close to within under two seconds.

Suddenly, it was very much game on again and not even halfway through the race. Then, on lap 36, Antonio Giovinazzi ground to a halt, bringing out a virtual Safety Car and throwing a lifeline to Verstappen, who pitted for a second set of hard compound tyres.

Somewhat surprisingly, Mercedes decided not to pit Hamilton in order to maintain track position. And with Verstappen nailing in fastest laps, it still seemed a possibility that the race would go down to the wire.

And then another last dramatic twist, the Williams of Nicholas Latifi crasheing into the barriers, bringing out a full Safety Car and allowing Verstappen to pit for a fresh set of soft compound rubber and close to the back of Hamilton.

Then, with just a lap remaining, the Safety Car dived into the pits, giving the Dutchman the advantage to sweep past Hamilton and claim a sensational title on the final lap. With it, a first title for Verstappen in extraordinary circumstances and a magnanimous runner-up in Hamilton.

“Firstly, big congratulations to Max and his team,” said a magnanimous Hamilton after the race. “I think we did an amazing job this year, everyone back at the factory all the men and women we have, we have worked so hard this year one of the most difficult seasons and I’m so proud of them, so grateful to be a part of the journey with them. We gave it everything, this last part of the season we gave it everything and we never gave up. That’s the most important thing.

“Of course I’ve been feeling good, great in the car this car particularly the last couple of months. If I’m honest, we’re still in the pandemic and I want everyone to stay safe and have a good Christmas with their families. And we’ll see about next year.”

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.