ABU DHABI (REUTERS) - An emotional Max Verstappen described his journey to 2021 Formula One world champion as “insane” after he beat rival Lewis Hamilton in a last-lap sprint for victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday (Dec 12).
“It’s just insane,” he said. “My goal when I was little was to be a Formula One driver. You dream of podiums and victories. But when they tell you that you are world champion, it’s incredible.”
With both drivers tied on points ahead of the season finale, the Dutchman trailed arch-rival Hamilton - who was gunning for a record eighth world title - for much of the incident-filled race at the Yas Marina circuit.
The intervention of a safety car four laps from the end, however, gave Verstappen the chance to take on Hamilton in a thrilling last-lap charge to the line.
“It’s unbelievable,” said the 24-year-old Verstappen. “Throughout the whole race I kept fighting then there was the opportunity in the last lap, it’s incredible.
“I don’t know what to say. My team and Honda deserve it.”
An hour after the race, Mercedes lodged two protests, alleging that there was a breach of the sporting regulations when the safety car was deployed late in the race.
One was “against the classification established at the end of the competition” and the other argued that Verstappen had overtaken Hamilton while the safety car was still deployed.
Stewards dismissed the team’s post-race protests but Mercedes have lodged an intention to appeal against Verstappen’s victory.
Stewards found Verstappen had briefly gone in front of Hamilton when both cars were accelerating and braking but was not in front when the safety car period ended.
Mercedes, accompanied by a team lawyer to a meeting with stewards, argued that Hamilton would have won had the rules on lapped cars been complied with and asked for the result to be changed to the positions after the penultimate lap.
The stewards ruled that it was not appropriate to shorten the race retrospectively.
They recognised that while the rules might not have been applied fully, another article allowed the race director to control the use of the safety car.
The race at Yas Marina started and ended in controversy but without the collision many had feared.
There were tears of joy at Red Bull and rage at Mercedes, whose fury was directed at Australian race director Michael Masi as the drivers’ title disappeared so close to the chequered flag.
Red Bull, whose partner Honda is now departing the sport, had said during the race that they needed a miracle to win as Hamilton made the most of a quicker car to head towards the title.
The late safety car intervention, after Canadian Nicholas Latifi crashed with five laps to go, provided hope and it was game on when Masi decided not to let all lapped cars pass the safety car before resuming racing.
That allowed Verstappen – on fresher, faster tyres after strategic stops – to close and go wheel-to-wheel with Hamilton for the lead.
At one point it had seemed the race could finish behind the safety car as marshals took time to remove Latifi’s stranded Williams.
“We were screaming at the end to let them race,” said Horner. “It is unheard of to leave the cars unlapped. They wanted to get the race going again. They absolutely made the right call.”
Hamilton, who had been heading for a fourth successive race win and 104th of his career, congratulated the new champion.
“I think we did an amazing job this year. The team, everyone back at the factory, all the men and women we have, worked so hard all year in a difficult season,” he said.
“I am so proud of them, and so grateful to be part of the journey with them. We gave it everything this last part of the season and never gave up, that’s the most important thing.”
Verstappen ended the season with 10 wins to Hamilton’s eight, having also led more laps and taken more poles and podiums.
After a record 22 races, Verstappen had 395.5 points to Hamilton’s 387.5. Mercedes scored 613.5 to Red Bull’s 585.5 to claim the constructors' championship for the eighth successive year.
Verstappen also thanked his teammate Sergio Perez, who played a key part in the win, and his Red Bull team.
“Finally a bit of luck for me. I also want to say thank you to Checo (Perez), he’s been a brilliant teammate.
“My team know I love them. I hope we can do this for 10, 15 years together. I don’t want to change ever. I want to stay with them for the rest of my life, if they will have me.
“I’m so happy. Our goal was to win this championship when we came together and now we have done that.”
The race marked the end of an epic contest with seven-time champion Hamilton, which has seen the two tangle on the track and off it.
“Lewis is an amazing driver, such a competitor. We had some tough times, that’s sport, everyone wants to win," said Verstappen.