A Controversy Lingers, but a Driver Holds Firm: ‘We Won It on Track’

Just like he had done throughout the season, Max Verstappen was pushing his Red Bull racing car to its limit. But try as he might, there was no catching Lewis Hamilton, the race leader and his rival in the winner-take-all Formula 1 finale in Abu Dhabi.

With six laps remaining, Hamilton held an 11-second lead — an eternity in Formula 1 terms — and seemed destined to claim his record eighth world title, streaking toward the line in the Mercedes he had expertly driven in the closing part of the season to erase Verstappen’s early lead.

In the cockpit of his car as the laps dwindled to what would have been a crushing denouement in a promising season, Verstappen refused to ease up, believing in racing’s capacity to throw up surprising scenarios.

“Slowly of course it didn’t look like it was going to happen. But I also say never stop believing until the last lap is driven and that’s really what I did,” Verstappen said Wednesday. “And then, of course, I was hoping for miracles in my head, but I was also very focused on just trying to do the best I could.”

The miracle duly arrived. With Hamilton coasting, Nicholas Latifi, driving at the back of the field, crashed his Williams, throwing debris across the track and causing the safety car to be deployed. But even then, if regular rules were followed, Verstappen’s hopes of emerging victorious in one of the tightest championship battles looked unlikely. The race director, to Hamilton’s dismay, took a different tack, paving the way for a final-lap shootout. That gave Verstappen the opportunity to blitz past Hamilton.

The people around Verstappen, including the team principal, Christian Horner, right, and chief technical officer, Adrian Newey, have had to navigate a race aftermath in which many consider the win to be illegitimate.Credit…Mark Thompson/Getty Images

The controversial conclusion has hung over the Verstappen victory since, with Mercedes signaling its intent to continue its appeal after failing to have the race result overturned in the hours after Verstappen took the checkered flag, winning the world championship by 8 points. The deadline for Mercedes to file its appeal expires Thursday, around the same time Verstappen will be presented with the Formula 1 championship winner’s trophy in Paris.

“I don’t even think about it too much because I do feel like the world champion,” said Verstappen, 24, sporting a cap atop his head that said as much. “It doesn’t matter what they try to do. You know, we won it on track. We won it when there was a green flag, a green light and we passed them on the track and they will never be able to take that away from me anyway.”

On Wednesday, a statement from Formula 1’s governing body, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, acknowledged that the circumstances of the race’s ending had created issues.

“The circumstances surrounding the use of the Safety Car following the incident of driver Nicholas Latifi, and the related communications between the FIA Race Direction team and the Formula 1 teams, have notably generated significant misunderstanding and reactions from Formula 1 teams, drivers and fans, an argument that is currently tarnishing the image of the Championship and the due celebration of the first Drivers’ World Championship title won by Max Verstappen and the eighth consecutive Constructors’ World Championship title won by Mercedes,” the statement said.

The controversy came at the end of a testy season. As Hamilton approached Verstappen’s championship lead late in the season, ultimately tying him on points by winning at the penultimate race of the season at the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, tension between the two drivers and their teams started to be aired publicly. Hamilton’s fury at what he perceived to be dangerous driving by his challenger aired on the team’s in-race radio. Still, Verstappen said, both Hamilton and the Mercedes team principal, Toto Wolff, congratulated him on his title victory.

“You should be accepting a loss no matter how much it hurts,” Verstappen said. Hamilton and Mercedes have not said much since the race ended Sunday. Hamilton was conspicuously absent from post-season testing on Tuesday at the same Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, where he was denied victory.

The intervention of Red Bull’s team principal, Christian Horner, may have played a key role in convincing the race director, Michael Masi, to deviate from normal practice, allowing Verstappen the final-lap opportunity he took to pass Hamilton. In a radio transmission aired during the race, Horner could be heard asking Masi to allow racing to restart and not end behind the safety car, which would have guaranteed victory for Hamilton.

Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton shared the podium after the race, and Verstappen says Hamilton congratulated him privately. But tension has lingered. Credit…Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Hoarse from days of celebration, Horner presented himself as a bystander to a dispute that pits Mercedes against the F.I.A. “This isn’t a dispute between Red Bull and Mercedes,” said Horner, who remarked during the race that Verstappen required a miracle “from the racing Gods” to stand a chance of victory as Hamilton surged into what looked like an unassailable lead. “When you look at the whole season and a lot of people are caught up in the actions of the last five laps of Abu Dhabi, but when you look at the 22 races Max is without a shadow of a doubt, an extremely deserving world champion.”

In a post-race interview, though, Horner made a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of Latifi’s role in delivering the last-gasp opportunity for Verstappen to win, offering Latifi a lifetime supply of the energy drink his team is named for. That led to a renewed wave of criticism of Latifi in social media posts that has not relented since the end of Sunday’s race.

Verstappen said the criticism was unfair, and urged Latifi, who until his moment in the spotlight was little known, to avoid reading the posts. “If that’s the case, I feel very sorry for Nicholas,” Verstappen said. “But yeah, I think what’s important for him then is just to turn off your phone and just don’t listen to it.”

The gripping season-ending climax was watched by millions of new converts to Formula 1, drawn to the sport on the back of the success of the Netflix series “Formula 1: Drive to Survive.” The show, which is completing filming of its fourth season, has drawn criticism from some of the drivers, including Verstappen, who said earlier this year he will no longer participate in it, aiming fire at what he said was efforts by its makers to contrive narratives about rivalries that do not exist.

He doubled down on his criticism of the show even after securing victory in circumstances that he accepted would provide a perfect ending for the show’s writers. “I’m not a big fan of it that’s for sure,” Verstappen said.

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