Winner Mercedes’ British driver Lewis Hamilton (R) reacts with his trophy flanked by second-placed Red Bull’s Dutch driver Max Verstappen (L) on the Jeddah podium. (AFP)
JEDDAH: Lewis Hamilton won a thrilling, topsy-turvy Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on Sunday after an epic battle with title rival Max Verstappen to ensure his title challenge remained alive going into the final race in Abu Dhabi next weekend.
The victory for the British driver in an incident-heavy race means the Mercedes and Red Bull drivers are now level on points in the world championship standings ahead of the finale in the UAE.
Hamilton got off to a perfect start off the line, while Verstappen appeared to be struggling to get power down in the early stages. But the momentum shifted toward the Dutchman when Haas driver Mick Schumacher hit a barrier, which eventually red-flagged the session after an initial safety car.
Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas were called into the pits under the safety car but Verstappen stayed out and took the lead of the race once the red flags waved, allowing him to pit and change tires still out in front.
On the restart, Hamilton retook the lead amid a close encounter with Verstappen, who the seven-time champion claimed forced him off the track.
Just a few laps later, there was another red flag after Sergio Perez, George Russell and Nikita Mazepin all collided at the rear of the field.
The battle between the two title hopefuls had heated up even more when Verstappen received a five-second penalty due to a controversial move on Hamilton, who accused the Dutchman of “brake-testing’” him.
Race officials decided that Verstappen’s move was illegal, which after some negotiation between FIA race director and the teams put Alpine’s Esteban Ocon into the lead for third start of the race, with Hamilton in second and Verstappen in third.
Verstappen then took the lead again with Hamilton following through, and tempers in the garages were fraying when they collided late in the race.
Bottas kept the pressure on a slowing Ocon and snatched the third and final podium spot on the final lap in what was his penultimate race for Mercedes.
Hamilton was full of praise for the efforts of his team after the race, while saying he “did not understand” why Verstappen had braked and that the incident was “confusing..”
“I’ve been racing a long time and that was incredibly tough, he said. “I tried to be as sensible and tough as I could be and with all my experience just keeping the car on the track and staying clean.
“It was difficult. We had all sorts of things thrown at us so I’m just really proud of everyone and great with the crowd.
“Red Bull have some raw pace, it was hard to overtake them, we’ve done an amazing job and Valtteri did a great job for the team and this is for all the guys and girls back in the factory.
“It has been an amazing event I felt very welcome here and people have been lovely here. The track is phenomenal, very difficult physically and mentally but you would not want it any other way.”
Verstappen was in a more philosophical mood, calling into question some of the decisions made by officials
“It was quite eventful, a lot of things happened, which I don’t fully agree with, but it is what it is,” he said.
“I tried to give it my all, I don’t think the tires were lasting, I was lacking a bit of rubber at the end, nevertheless, still second.
“I slowed down, I wanted to let him by, I was on the right but he didn’t want to overtake and we touched. I don’t really understand what happened there.
“It will be decided (at Abu Dhabi), hopefully we have a good weekend.”