F1 Finish Line: Verstappen, Hamilton all square after intense Saudi Arabian GP

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain celebrates. (Andrej Isakovic/AP)

If Formula One was hoping for maximum chaos in the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix and drama for the world championship in the penultimate race of the season, mission accomplished and then some.

The Jeddah Corniche Circuit on the banks of the Red Sea was expected to be the fastest street course in the series — and second fastest overall — with tight turns, narrow straightaways and unforgiving barriers mixing a recipe for crashes, red flags and safety cars.

All those boxes were checked off Sunday, and when the dust settled, Lewis Hamilton emerged victorious for his record-extending 103rd career victory to draw level with Max Verstappen atop the world championship standings heading into next week’s finale.

It’s the first time since 1974 the top two drivers are tied heading into the final F1 race of the season. Although Verstappen remains ahead of Hamilton due to wins (nine to eight), you couldn’t ask for a better scenario as the series shifts to Abu Dhabi for next Sunday’s finale.

Verstappen, Hamilton shootout for championship

The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix delivered, whether you’re a fan of speed or theatrics.

The safety car made its first appearance just 10 laps into the 50-lap event when Mick Schumacher spun and slammed into the tire barrier. Hamilton and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas, who started 1-2, pitted while Verstappen opted to stay out and inherit the lead as Red Bull anticipated another caution period would arise. Verstappen also didn’t have much of a choice as it was the best early opportunity to get ahead of both Mercedes cars.

Red Bull’s gamble paid off. F1 race director Michael Masi, who had quite a busy day, issued the red flag to bring a halt to the race and call in all cars to pit lane. Verstappen was essentially given a free pit stop as teams are allowed to change tires under the red flag — much to the chagrin of Hamilton.

A second red flag dropped just past the midway mark when former world champions Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen tangled and scattered debris across the track. That set up another shootout on the subsequent re-start, with Verstappen leaving the track to hold off Hamilton (and eventually earning a five-second penalty). When Verstappen was told to give up track position, the Dutch driver eased up in the middle of the course and Hamilton rammed right into the back of him. Fortunately for both drivers, neither was hurt nor were their cars damaged significantly — although Hamilton’s front wing took a beating.

From there it was relatively drama-free as the seven-time world champion Hamilton took the lead with six laps remaining and rolled away pretty much unchallenged to the chequered flag. Verstappen’s rear tires were fading and the gap ahead of Esteban Ocon, who was running P3 at the time, combined with a five-second penalty wasn’t enough for a quick pit stop to attempt to steal Hamilton’s fastest lap point either.

Although Verstappen earned “driver of the day” honours, it’s small consolation when that doesn’t provide you with any points.

How did our Driver of Interest do?

We highlighted Bottas heading into the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix as he sat in a precariously pivotal position where he can help Hamilton in the drivers’ championship and Mercedes for the constructors’.

After Sergio Perez’s Honda-powered Red Bull was knocked out, Bottas just had to keep it clean, and cruised along to extend his advantage for third overall. The Finnish driver finished on the podium in P3 after beating Ocon to the line.

Although Verstappen and Hamilton are tied for the drivers’ championship, Mercedes padded their lead on the constructors’ side. The German manufacturer is now 28 points ahead of Red Bull and closing in on a record-extending eighth consecutive title.

Oh no, Ocon

Alpine was looking for back-to-back podium finishes, but it was not to be for Renault’s team. Fernando Alonso finished a stunning third in Qatar two weeks ago and teammate Ocon was running strong Sunday in P3 but couldn’t fend off Bottas in a drag race to the chequered flag.

The points help in Alpine’s pursuit to hold off AlphaTauri for fifth overall but to have a podium spot within reach — maybe even literally, it was that close — still stings.

Stop and Go

• Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz qualified 15th but if you thought his streak was in jeopardy, you haven’t been watching Sainz, have you? Sainz slid up into eighth place to extend the longest active points streak to 14 races. Quite smooth for the smooth operator.

• Daniel Ricciardo snapped a three-race points drought and the worst skid of his maiden voyage with McLaren finishing P5. Ricciardo and McLaren teammate Lando Norris (P10 for the third time in four races) have dropped off significantly since finishing 1-2 in Monza, and long-time nemesis Ferrari is locked to finish ahead of them in the constructors’ standings.

• Canadians Lance Stroll and Nicholas Latifi just missed out on the points, finishing outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th, respectively. It was a sombre start Sunday as F1 paid tribute to Sir Frank Williams, who passed away last weekend at age 79. Williams, who owned the team that bears his name, gave Stroll his start in F1 and Latifi currently drives for the team.

“I think just we’re going to miss him and I was fortunate enough as well to spend time at Williams working with him and his Williams family, so my thoughts are with his family,” Stroll told Formula1.com. “It’s definitely a big loss for Formula 1; we’re going to miss him very much.”

• I’m going to miss Raikkonen after he retires at the end of the season.

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