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Max Verstappen’s Formula 1 Championship Was the Perfect Encapsulation of a Wild F1 Season

A neck-and-neck battle with Lewis Hamilton ended in controversy. At least it made for great television.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Removed from the tooth-rattling emotional zigzags of the Formula 1 season’s final lap, the result feels about right.

Max Verstappen has finally made good on the near-messianic hype that’s surrounded him since childhood, squeezing past Lewis Hamilton seconds from the end of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to win his first world championship at age 24.

The nature of the result feels right as well; if Verstappen was the best driver this year, it was by an imperceptible margin. So it’s right that he and Hamilton passed the lead and the momentum back and forth countless times this year, and that while Verstappen won the drivers’ title, Hamilton’s Mercedes team won the constructors’ title. But it also fits that Verstappen won not only at the wire, but under contentious circumstances that left Mercedes (and its fans) feeling aggrieved and all parties confused.

Hamilton had the race, and the title, more or less in the bag until a pair of inconveniently timed—but entirely necessary—caution periods bunched up the pack and allowed Verstappen to put on fresh tires. But with a lap and change to go, race director Michael Masi cleared the lapped cars that shielded the defending champion from his rival. That decision, which sits in a legal gray area that led Mercedes to protest the results, set the stage for Verstappen’s kingmaking move, with Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff screaming at Masi over the radio.

This is Formula 1, a sport that’s enjoying a renaissance in the U.S. thanks to Netflix’s all-access docuseries Drive to Survive, which combines the pretty aspirational scenery of a travel film with the drama of high-level sports with the constant peevish, passive-aggressive backbiting of a basic-cable reality show. It’s like catnip for the hundreds of thousands of viewers who got up at dawn Sunday morning to see how the latest story would end. If any of those hundreds of thousands of viewers were high school English teachers, surely at that moment they all pointed at their TV screens and shouted, “Aha! A microcosm!”

The final substantive action of the season—which incorporates Verstappen’s decisive pass, the final controversial decision by Masi, and the final last-ditch protest by Mercedes—stems from a crash by Williams driver Nicholas Latifi on lap 52 out of 58.

Up until that point, the race had been tense but fairly routine. Hamilton, starting second, had outdragged Verstappen to the first corner off the start, and the two nearly collided a few corners later as the Red Bull driver attempted to retake the position. The Red Bull staff tried to convince Masi that Hamilton had gained an advantage by leaving the track, but Masi and the stewards were convinced that Hamilton left the track only to avoid being T-boned by Verstappen’s desperate lunge down the inside of the corner. In isolation, the lack of action was a bad break for Verstappen, but it fit with a season’s worth of hands-off refereeing as the two championship contenders traded paint half a dozen times over the course of the year.

By the time Latifi crashed, Hamilton was trying to wring the last shreds of life from a set of hard tires he’d had fitted on lap 15. Verstappen, meanwhile, was chasing him down on fresher, grippier rubber, but wasn’t making enough headway. In a mid-race interview, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner seemed resigned to the fact that Hamilton was just too fast, and barring a miracle, Verstappen would run out of laps before he caught back up.

Latifi’s run-in with the wall changed that. The decision to bring out full-course caution flags and the safety car—which slowed the field down, bunched up the pack, and all but nullified Hamilton’s 10-second lead—was unlucky for Hamilton, but entirely noncontroversial. Latifi had hit the barrier hard enough to yard sale bits of his car all over the course, and there was no other way to clear the debris safely. With the field slowed to a crawl, Verstappen pitted for a second time, shoeing his car with soft tires that wouldn’t last more than a few laps but were ideal for fast acceleration and a last-ditch sprint to the finish. Hamilton couldn’t respond without surrendering the race lead, and stayed out on his older, slower, tires.

Again, unlucky but not controversial. Masi made two decisions, however, that would ultimately swing the title back to Verstappen. The first was to order a restart with one lap to go, when the race could legally have ended under yellow flags. Second, and nearly simultaneously, he allowed five lapped cars to pass Hamilton and rejoin the lead lap, but had four others hold position.

And this is where the fine print becomes important. After the race, Mercedes protested the result under two articles of the Formula 1 rulebook. The first concerned article 48.8; Mercedes alleged that Verstappen passed Hamilton under the safety car, but after a hearing, the FIA found no reason to overturn the result on these grounds. The second and more complicated objection relates to article 48.12, which governs lapped cars under safety car conditions. A strict reading of that rule would seem to indicate that Masi could allow all or none of the lapped cars to unlap themselves, but he could not split the field. Moreover, the wording of the rule—“once the last lapped car has passed the leader the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap”—indicates that the green flag went back down a lap too early.

The argument for keeping the lapped cars in place is obvious: With Latifi’s car still out on the course, and a flurry of workers busy cleaning up the mess, it was unsafe to have a parade of cars screaming by at up to 200 miles per hour. But if they’d held position, Verstappen would have had to weave through five cars in one lap before he got onto Hamilton’s tail, which would have denied the audience the race-ending spectacle they got to witness. Had all nine cars been cleared to unlap themselves, the race might not have been able to restart in time to get any green flag laps in, handing Hamilton the title in hugely anticlimactic fashion.

So Masi split the baby, which put Verstappen, with faster tires, pressed up against Hamilton’s bumper like a high school freshman about to get scolded by the chaperones at the homecoming dance. There was only one way the race could end from there.

All season long, Horner and Wolff have relieved the stress of the title fight by taking out their frustrations on the Formula 1 race director, each in his own way: Wolff with stentorian bluntness, Horner with his Tory backbencher attitude. Masi is an easy target because he was promoted to the position after the sudden death of his popular and long-serving predecessor, and because Wolff and Horner seem to view his diplomatic way of speaking as an invitation to work the refs. But with Wolff in his ear after the checkered flag, Masi put his foot down: “Toto?” Masi said, “It’s called a motor race. We went car racing.”

In sports officiating, consistency, fairness, and accuracy often aren’t as important as the appearance of consistency, fairness, and accuracy. And even appreciating the complexities of Masi’s position, it seems like the last-lap controversy is just the climax of a season-long buildup, in which no one seems to be particularly happy with the way the sport is officiated.

This year’s battle between Verstappen and Hamilton pitted an aggressive young up-and-comer at the start of his prime against a sagacious all-time great nearing the end of his. From the first race, they delivered one thrilling spectacle after another, but the last image of this great rivalry will be of a controversial restart, and the pass itself will take a backseat to the protests that followed it.

Mercedes could appeal the FIA’s decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, in which case this dispute could go on for days or weeks. And if Mercedes does win its case, whom would that truly satisfy? Not Hamilton, who was gracious in defeat after the race. And probably not the Mercedes team, which has nothing to prove through litigation after winning seven straight championship doubles from 2014 to 2020, and this year’s constructors’ title to boot.

The season-ending controversy diminishes everyone, including Verstappen, who after forcing Hamilton off the track in Brazil and picking up 15 seconds’ worth of dangerous driving penalties in Saudi Arabia a week ago was a model citizen in the season finale. His season is one for the ages: 22 starts, 10 pole positions, 10 wins, and eight second-place finishes. All while fending off the Hamilton-Mercedes package, the most dominant driver-car combination in F1 history. For six years his aggressiveness and tantalizing talent made him one of the sport’s most popular drivers, but it wasn’t until now that he’d had the equipment and consistency to mount a genuine title challenge. Now, the results validate the hype.

That would be a more satisfying ending to the season: Realizing that Verstappen has gone up a level and made good on the hype; discussing Hamilton’s place among the greats—he’s now one engine failure, one misjudged pitlane entry, and one weird restart from having 10 world championships instead of seven; or looking ahead to 2022, when Hamilton and Verstappen can renew their rivalry, and how a rules shakeup, the resurgence of Ferrari, and George Russell’s promotion to the Mercedes team could make for an even more unpredictable year to come.

Instead, the 2021 world championship has ended as it persisted all year long: dramatically, with breathtaking driving and in a shower of partisan frustration. It’s not ideal, but it makes for great television.