Lewis Hamilton has won a chaotic and controversial Saudi Arabian Grand Prix after crashing twice with title rival Max Verstappen to zero the championship with one race remaining.
The first-ever race in Jeddah ended acrimoniously, with the warring title rivals accusing each other of dirty driving and toxic tactics after three standing restarts, two red flags and a string of virtual safety cars than stretched and shrunk the gap between the leaders throughout before Verstappen waved Hamilton into the lead after intervention from race control.
The grand prix started tamely, with Hamilton leading teammate Valtteri Bottas easily off the line to hold Verstappen in third, but the calm lasted only nine laps, when the first safety car was deployed to clean up Mick Schumacher’s high-speed crash at Turn 22.
Mercedes stopped both drivers, leaving Verstappen to inherit the lead, but the strategy was turned on its head by the decision to suspend the race for barrier repairs, gifting the Dutchman a free stop from first place.
A furious Hamilton was skeptical of the need for the red flag, but he saved his rage for the restart, where an inspired launch got him easily ahead of Verstappen and onto the first apex. Verstappen chose to cling to his outside and power through the run-off, cutting the corner and balking the Briton upon rejoining. Hamilton checked up and dropped to third behind Esteban Ocon.
But that was as far the restart would get. Sergio Perez and Charles Leclerc came together further back, the Mexican incidentally squeezing the Monegasque in the wall and taking himself out of the race in a spin.
Further back still it was all George Russell could do to slow to avoid the carnage, catching Nikita Mazepin off guard. The Haas slammed into the back of the Williams, launching it into the air and sending both into retirement.
The race was stopped for a second time, and race director Michael Masi offered Verstappen the opportunity to start third behind Ocon and Hamilton for having passed the Briton off the track at the previous restart. Red Bull Racing accepted the deal, handing Ocon pole for the third grid of the night. Hamilton launched from second and moved to the right to cover Ocon into the first turn, but he inadvertently left the door open on the inside for Verstappen to claim the apex. They went three-wide into the first turn, Hamilton sandwiched in the middle, and Verstappen emerged with the lead from Ocon, leaving Hamilton a fortunately undamaged third.
The Mercedes got back past the Alpine easily into the first braking zone of lap 18 and set about his pursuit of the lead. He had the pace, but a string of virtual safety cars to clear debris from the track broke up the momentum of the race until lap 37, when Hamilton was finally able to build enough momentum to launch around Verstappen’s outside at the first turn.
But Verstappen wasn’t prepared to give up the track position without a fight, and he held firm the inside line, forcing contact and sending Hamilton off the road, emerging with his lead intact.
Race control instructed Verstappen to hand the position to Hamilton, and the Dutchman slowed dramatically exiting the final corner. But Hamilton hadn’t been told to expect it, and in one of the season’s more bizarre flashpoints he hit the middle-of-the-road car as they trundled down the straight.
Verstappen sped away, leaving Hamilton to assess the damage to his front wing.
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 5, 2021
“I didn’t quite understand why all of a sudden he hit the brakes pretty heavily,” Hamilton said, having accused the Dutchman of brake-testing him over team radio. “Then I ran into the back of him, and then he moved on.”
Verstappen insisted he had done nothing wrong.
“I slowed down, I wanted to let him by,” Verstappen said. “I was on the right but he didn’t want to overtake, and we touched. I don’t really understand what happened there.”
The FIA wasn’t convinced, and after the race he was called to the stewards to answer accusations of dangerous driving. Hamilton also has been summoned.
Red Bull Racing was told to let Hamilton through a second time, and Verstappen obliged again at the end of lap 42 into the final corner, ensuring he could pick up DRS on the front straight to take back the lead into the first turn.
It wasn’t enough to satisfy race control, and he ceded the lead again on the following tour. Hamilton this time ran him deep, forcing him off the track at the last corner to ensure his momentum onto the front straight was broken, to take the lead for the final time and grind out a controversial victory.
“I’ve been racing a long time, but that was incredibly tough,” he said. “I tried to be as sensible and as tough as I could be out there.
“With all my race experience over the years, I was just keeping my car on track and staying clean. It was difficult.”
Combined with a point for fastest lap, Hamilton eliminated his deficit to Verstappen ahead of next weekend’s final grand prix in Abu Dhabi.
Verstappen, who maintains the title lead by virtue of having one more win than Hamilton, cut a frustrated figure after the race.
“It was quite eventful,” he said. “A lot of thing happened which I don’t fully agree with, but it is what it is. I tried to give it all.
“It will be decided [in Abu Dhabi]. Hopefully it’s a good weekend.”
Valtteri Bottas took third place from Esteban Ocon by just 0.1s, pinching the place as they crossed the line on the final lap, to propel Mercedes 28 points clear of Red Bull Racing and prevent Verstappen from making a late stop for a fastest lap attempt.
“It was not an easy day, there were many obstacles,” said Bottas, who was caught out at the first restart on hard tires, dropping from third to fifth. “Obviously with the red flags and everything it made it a little bit tricky.
“I just kept pushing. It wasn’t easy to overtake today, but finally on the last straight I got it.”
Esteban Ocon drove a strong second half of the race to hold fourth to stretch Alpine’s lead over AlphaTauri for fifth in the standings.
Daniel Ricciardo broke his three-race pointless streak with fifth ahead of Pierre Gasly and Ferrari teammates Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz.
Antonio Giovinazzi scored his first points since the Monaco Grand Prix in May with ninth place ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris completing the top 10.