F1 title down to the fire after explosive Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

You simply couldn’t write it. After 21 rounds Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton are tied on points and brimming with animosity after a dynamite inaugural grand prix in Saudi Arabia, and it’s anyone’s guess who’s going to leave Abu Dhabi with the championship this weekend.

This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.

Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton have crashed often enough this season that you can’t help but wince when these two championship foes meet on track, but even by their increasingly fractious standards Saudi Arabia took the rivalry to another level.

Hamilton needed to win the race to set up a winner-takes-all final round. If Verstappen were to triumph, only a dramatic serving of misfortune could deny him the title.

Hamilton had it all to lose. Verstappen went all-out to deal the fatal blow.

The Dutchman’s full-throated assault on the grand prix was evident in his supreme but ill-fated pole attempt. His car dancing on the ragged edge of grip, he was all but guaranteed top spot until the final corner, when he locked up and in a moment of overconfidence slid into the barriers as he tried to power out.

But the race dealt Verstappen a second chance, a red flag gifting him a free pit stop that promoted him from third into the lead.

Hamilton was furious, and Verstappen now wielded the narrow circuit to his defensive advantage.

At the restart Hamilton launched down Verstappen’s inside, but the Dutchman wasn’t prepared to concede. He cut the chicane and rolled Hamilton wide, holding the lead by forcing the Mercedes to slow.

The pressure swelled again on lap 37, when Hamilton latched onto the back of the Red Bull Racing car on the run down to the critical first turn and swept around his outside.

The Briton was ahead, but Verstappen ran him deep to take them both off track, forcing Hamilton to pull out.

It was a trademark Verstappen move, the kind from which Hamilton has regularly withdrawn to avoid a crash. But with two races to go a season of pent-up frustration was ready to burst.

“That was f***ing crazy, man,” Hamilton protested, and race control agreed, telling Verstappen to relinquish the position.

He tried to do it by hitting the brakes on the long back straight in an attempt to pick up the slipstream through the last corner and re-take the lead. But the closing speed at one of the fastest sections of track caught Hamilton off guard, and he ran into the back of the Bull

It was the season’s most bizarre flashpoint and served to underline the intensity of the unique championship fight — not the rules, not logic, not the potential presence of other cars could extract this battling pair from their own personal duel. The track may as well have belonged to them alone.

Verstappen tried twice more to cede position strategically, and when Hamilton barged through he ran his rival off the road, ensuring he couldn’t be followed and sending a signal that he was finished being pushed around.

“I really have to try and just keep my cool out there, which was really difficult to do,” Hamilton said after the race. “I’ve raced a lot of drivers through my life … and there are a few at the top which are over the limit. Rules kind of don’t apply or they don’t think of the rules.

“I’ve avoided collisions on so many occasions with the guy … it doesn’t matter for him if we don’t both finish. For me, we both need to finish.”

Verstappen was slapped with a penalty for passing off track and another for erratic driving, but he refused to concede he erred.

“I’m just trying to race, and this sport lately is more about penalties than racing,” Verstappen said on his cool-down lap. “For me, this is not Formula 1.”

The animosity between the pair has never been higher, and with one race to go the permutations are simple: whoever finishes ahead in Abu Dhabi wins. If both fail to finish, Verstappen wins on countback, and there’s no doubt the Dutchman will wield this most slender advantage to his benefit in the fight of his life, debate about driving standard be damned.

It’s the finale F1 has always wanted. The winner takes it all.