If you were to convert yesterday’s race into a film script and pitch it to the bigwigs of Hollywood, you would be laughed out of the door for it being unfeasible.
In the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix we saw the very best, and some of the worst, of the sport. But, when all’s said and done in the direct aftermath, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Mercedes’s Lewis Hamilton played out a duel for the ages that leaves them level on points with one race remaining, on Sunday in Abu Dhabi.
This race had it all – literally. Two red flags, four virtual safety cars, three standing starts and an intervening race director in Michael Masi all played their part in a truly chaotic grand prix.
The battle between the Dutchman and Englishman has ebbed and flowed all season, with both drivers enjoying periods at the head of the drivers’ championship.
But yesterday in Jeddah there was an overriding feeling of confusion, if anything. A red flag caused by Mick Schumacher gave the advantage to Verstappen when Hamilton chose to pit under an earlier safety car before the stoppage effectively handed the Red Bull driver a free stop.
From the restart, Verstappen exited the track before re-entering and causing chaos upfront – handing Esteban Ocon a temporary podium place. Hamilton was down to third as Red Bull’s Sergio Perez became the latest victim of the mayhem.
A second red flag led to one of the most bizarre spectacles in recent Formula 1 history as Masi entered what felt like a series of negotiations with Mercedes and Red Bull as to whether Verstappen should drop behind Hamilton or not.
Alas, the negotiations concluded with an agreement whereby Ocon would be on pole for the third start inside the opening quarter of the race, with Hamilton in second and Verstappen behind. Following?
Lights out and away we go… again. This time Verstappen worked a stunning move to jump into the lead and began to cement his position at the front. At this point he was looking at a 13 point lead heading into the final race.
In a later battle between the two drivers, Verstappen was told to give a place back to Hamilton after going wide.
Verstappen slowed down in the centre of the track after being told to concede by his engineer – and the two collided. There were accusations of brake testing, miscommunication, gamesmanship with DRS lines and, ultimately, another decision for the officials to mull over.
Hamilton was eventually let through before Verstappen instantly took the lead again, another sublime move from the Dutchman. But in the noise and heat of the new circuit, Verstappen appeared to let Hamilton through again – for reasons still unknown. Crossed wires?
After Verstappen received a five second penalty for gaining an advantage from leaving the track, Hamilton pushed to victory and, with the fastest lap, went level on points with Verstappen on 369.5 apiece.
Got all of that? Anybody?
This result isn’t final, just yet. In the coming days, as with other races, decisions and the talk will continue throughout the week and into the final race weekend in Abu Dhabi.
It’s easy to pick at the potential hot-headedness of Verstappen or the curious case of reigning champion Hamilton lifting behind the Dutchman, but this is one of the most intense battles Formula 1 has ever seen.
There’s no longer any love lost, but was there ever? The bitterness in the paddock is seemingly palpable.
This race will be overshadowed by controversy, for now at least, and has raised questions over whether tracks like Jeddah, a speedster’s dream, offer anything but chaos to the calendar. It is for the individual to decide whether a grand prix like yesterday’s is one that whets the appetite.
Come Sunday, though, in the dusk of Abu Dhabi, a clash of styles, between a seven-time world champion and someone so desperate to win his first, will lead to an eventual winner.
But in this whirlwind of a Formula 1 season, chaos and madness has given way to a straight shootout next weekend. It’s effectively 0-0. Winner takes all. And breathe.