Max Verstappen was in the wrong at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. I’m not disputing that. But was Hamilton without blame?
Verstappen and Hamilton raced at the Jeddah circuit like it was the last race of the championship, and the winner would take all. It was combative, combustible, chaotic.
The first big one between the two was on lap 37 when, slipstreaming Verstappen into Turn 1 and using DRS, Hamilton had the better pace. He tried around the outside, both drivers off the track with Verstappen holding onto the lead and gaining metres.
Told to give the position to Hamilton or risk a penalty, Verstappen slowed so Hamilton could pass him but instead the Briton also slowed. Verstappen then braked, said to be a 2.4G stop and, second big incident, Hamilton hit the back of him.
Verstappen was given a five-second penalty for the first moment, and later a 10-second for the latter, deemed to have been driving erratically. Fair play to the first, the second though I don’t agree.
Verstappen left Hamilton space on the inside to pass him as he had been told to do. Hamilton didn’t come through, instead also slowing, so Verstappen slowed even further, and then Hamilton hit him.
Mercedes argued they hadn’t had time to give Hamilton the message that Verstappen was giving him the position, but later in the press conference the reigning World Champion said “it became apparent he was trying to let me past…but before the DRS zone.
“So then it would have meant he would just DRS back past me coming through the last corner, followed me and then DRS-ed me into turn one. So that was the tactic.”
The two had their third and last moment on lap 43 when Verstappen tried to pass Hamilton around the outside, and the Briton forced him off the track. FIA race director Michael Masi said that was “borderline black-and-white warning flag” with Red Bull of course feeling aggrieved that no penalty came from that. Seems a bit unfair in light of Verstappen’s earlier penalty.
With one race to go, winner takes all in Abu Dhabi, think the one thing every Red Bull and Mercedes fan can agree on is that the gloves are well and truly off.
Could Lap 37 in Jeddah be one of the defining moments of the season? 🤯#SaudiArabianGP 🇸🇦 #F1 pic.twitter.com/vfrLzUVJW9
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 5, 2021
Are Red Bull entitled to feel aggrieved? No, I don’t think they are. This appeared to be a case of you reap what you sow.
It’s inescapable that Lewis Hamilton was faster than Max Verstappen in Saudi Arabia, as he had also been at the two previous races. And equally clear that Verstappen, as at Interlagos, would do everything to try and keep the Mercedes behind him.
Those strongarm tactics resulted in the Dutchman being penalised for three separate incidents, all of which were of his own making. It simply comes down to Verstappen’s MO – do what is necessary in the moment and deal with the consequences later.
The only way Red Bull could reasonably feel aggrieved would be if Verstappen’s race had been severely compromised when Hamilton ran into the back of him when offered the lead to avoid a penalty, but Max was not exactly blameless there – as the stewards ruled afterwards .
Ultimately, the most important thing was that the right race result played out in Jeddah, Hamilton finishing first and Verstappen second for the third consecutive race, setting up exactly the climax to the season all neutrals would have wanted.
Hamilton wasn’t squeaky-clean in Saudi Arabia, but given how his opponent raced, it’s hard to blame him for fighting fire with fire.
Sure, if he was playing completely fair, he would have passed Verstappen when the Dutchman slowed down instead of staying behind to ensure he had DRS rather than his rival for the main straight.
The Red Bull man was deploying identical tactics himself though, wanting to give up the place there so that he could take it back immediately.
When he didn’t get his way at first, he slammed on the brakes to try and force the Mercedes to go past him, and that’s what caused the two to come together, not Hamilton’s hesitance.
Trying to give your rival the lead at a spot on the track that suits you more than him is fine, but trying to make him do what you want him to by slowing dangerously in front of him isn’t.
Opting not to go ahead when given the opportunity was maybe a little naughty from Hamilton, but nothing out of the ordinary really, and it’s hard to criticise him for it.
After all, Verstappen had already twice broken the rules to stay ahead of him at that point, so it’s understandable that he responded by dabbling with the dark arts – not breaking any rules – himself.
Ultimately, all is fair in love and war, and while there isn’t much love out there, this is very much a war now.
I felt Christian Horner’s words in the fallout of Verstappen and Hamilton’s battle at Interlagos were indicative that they felt Verstappen might have got away with one with his aggressive defence down at Turn 4.
Likewise, accepting Michael Masi’s ‘offer’ of starting behind Hamilton at the second restart, having run him off the road at the first, was another show that they know deep down they knew their driver was in the wrong on that occasion – knowing that if the stewards got involved, the punishment could have been harsher.
For all Red Bull say and do to try and cast blame on Mercedes, the fact they had to then instruct Verstappen to let Hamilton by again shows they know the Dutchman is very much on the limit of legal racing at best – and he only has himself to blame for it.
Because of that, I can’t say I have any sympathy for Red Bull at the moment.
He appeared to come back towards the middle of the track before braking, so all he needed to do was stay to the right to make it clear he was moving over, and avoid the confusion that followed.
I see no issue with Verstappen’s gamesmanship getting straight back past Hamilton after letting him by at Turn 27 later on though. That was a clever piece of driving on his part, but the verdict of a five-second penalty coming through for the supposed ‘brake test’ moments later felt like that ingenuity went unrewarded.
Given what happened beforehand, it was easy to see why Hamilton decided to pretty much run Verstappen off the road when he eventually was allowed by, but that doesn’t exempt him from criticism at all in that case.
To look more widely about the World Championship for a second, though, Sunday’s chaos only served to make me worry for how things will play out in Abu Dhabi.
As Jon alluded to, Verstappen showed once again that he’ll do anything he can to avoid being passed, then work out any fallout later on. As he’s ahead in the standings due to having more victories this season, this does make me wonder what might happen if they’re at close quarters again at Yas Marina.
Let’s hope it plays out fairly between the two of them and we get the ending this monumental season deserves.