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The increasingly tense Formula One title fight between defending champion Lewis Hamilton and his formidable challenger, Max Verstappen, will head to the last race of the season with the fierce rivals level on points.
Next weekend's Abu Dhabi showdown will see Hamilton crowned for a record eighth time — or Verstappen win his first title.
Hamilton’s nail-biting win at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on Sunday was his third straight to pull him level with Verstappen on 369.5 points. The British veteran is within touching distance of title No. 8 to move one ahead of Michael Schumacher and stand alone among F1 greats.
Verstappen still leads by a hair’s breadth, only because he has more wins: 9-8.
“Of course it’s exciting," said Verstappen, who won last year in Abu Dhabi. “We’re starting again like we started the season.”
Hamilton's win in the heat and humidity of Jeddah saw him pass Verstappen with six laps remaining of a chaotic race, as the pair tangled again this season following high-octane crashes at the British GP and the Italian GP.
“It was clear that others around were willing to take it to all sorts of levels to overtake,” Hamilton said after the race, with Verstappen sat right next to him. “We’ve seen multiple incidents this year.”
Hamilton is in no mood to back down with the finish in sight, but Verstappen has drawn out the street fighter in him.
The race on the street circuit under the lights on the 30-kilometer (18.6-mile) coastal resort area in Jeddah will go down as one of the more memorable events of the season — if not the last several years. It saw three standing starts, a pair of restarts, multiple safety cars, and an intense back-and-forth between the title contenders including a minor late collision.
Red Bull was allowed to negotiate a penalty for Verstappen, Mercedes head Toto Wolff slammed his headset in rage, and Hamilton drove into the back of his title rival before ultimately passing Verstappen for the win.
Verstappen was dejected and incredulous after finishing second.
“What happened today is unbelievable,” he said. “I’m just trying to race. This sport is more about penalties than racing. So for me this is not Formula One but at least the fans enjoyed it.”
Verstappen is exasperated at some decisions that stewards have made this season
“Not just this race (but) in general, lately, (it's) the trend in F1,” said Verstappen, whose father Jos was Schumacher's teammate. “That’s not how I grew up watching Formula One.”
Hamilton needed a few moments to recover after one of the most draining of his record-extending 103 career wins in the heat and humidity of the Middle East.
He sat on a chair next to his physical trainer, with his face buried into a towel as he waited for the podium ceremony.
“That was incredibly tough,” said Hamilton, who will be 37 next season. “I tried to be as sensible and as tough as I could be.”
Verstappen was penalized for going off course on the second restart, was later told to yield position to Hamilton, but Hamilton ran into the back of his Red Bull to damage the front wing on his Mercedes. The two differed on what happened, and Verstappen was summoned before the stewards post-race.
“I didn’t understand why all of a sudden he hit the brakes quite heavily then I moved into the back of him," said Hamilton, who wasn't told by Mercedes that Verstappen was going to let him by for the lead. “All of a sudden (Verstappen) slowed at a really rapid pace. I feel really grateful that I didn’t take us both out.”
Stewards ruled against Verstappen and gave him an additional 10-second time penalty. It did not change the standings as he had enough of a gap over third-place Valtteri Bottas.
“The sudden braking by the driver of car 33 (Verstappen) was determined by the Stewards to be erratic and hence the predominant cause of the collision,” the stewards' decision read.
During the race Hamilton used an expletive in describing Verstappen as “crazy” and called his driving “dangerous."
“I definitely felt there were scenarios where that was the case," Hamilton said after. "It’s not the first time I’ve had to avoid collision."
Verstappen insisted it was Hamilton’s fault.
“I slowed down, I wanted to let him by," he said. “He didn’t want to overtake and then we touched.”
Wolff has overseen seven straight drivers' and constructors' championships and is closing in on No. 8. Bottas pushed Mercedes closer by overtaking Esteban Ocon of Alpine near the line.
Sebastian Vettel and Sergio Perez were among five who failed to finish because of the messy restarts and the blind turns on the second-longest circuit on the calendar. It spans 6.2 kilometers (3.8 miles) with 27 corners and was only completed days ahead of the F1 debut in the country.
Once he passed Verstappen, Hamilton controlled the finish and stayed competitive in his post-race news conference.
When asked about rules for going too wide off track, Hamilton said “all the drivers understand it except one of us here,” clearly aiming that comment at Verstappen.
The Dutchman bit back.
“I find it interesting that I’m the one who gets a penalty when both of us run outside the white line," Verstappen said. “We’re talking more about white lines and penalties than Formula One racing and that’s a bit of a shame."
Next Sunday night, the time for talking will be over and one of them will be celebrating.
“It’s a straight-out fight as it has been for the entire year,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said. "We have one shot and it’s time to take it.”
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