Sports

The Formula 1 Championship Is a Dramatic, Hateful Spectacle

A young lion and old master are in a dead heat with one race left. The finale could be explosive in more ways than one.

Foreground: Hamilton hoists his trophy and looks at the crowd. Background: Verstappen looks on, angry.
Mercedes’ British driver Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull’s Dutch driver Max Verstappen after the Formula 1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit in Jeddah, this past Sunday. Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images

This Formula 1 season has 22 races. With 25 points available to the winner in each, and another point for the driver who posts the fastest lap—plus three special qualifying sessions that have up to 3 points on offer—a driver could pick up 581 points in an impossible perfect season. (The exact number of races varies by the year.) He could also earn 0 points if he never once finished in the top 10, as has been the case for Haas F1 Team’s Mick Scumacher and Nikita Mazepin this year. Mathematicians would differ on what season-long totals are possible for the world’s best drivers, but they’d mostly agree about the probability that a year’s two best drivers would end up tied in points through 21 of those 22 races: It’s exceedingly unlikely and won’t happen often.

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But that’s where Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton are entering this season’s final race, on Sunday at 8 a.m. Eastern time in Abu Dhabi. It’s the first time since 1974 that the top two drivers have been equal on points (369.5) ahead of the finale. Their battle on Sunday is a true winner-take-all that’s rare in a sport that has 18 other cars on the track. It’s also packed with narrative subplots. It feels, for reasons based on statistics, personalities, and forthcoming changes to the sport, like a moment that might not come again for a long time. If you get a high off the world’s best athletes trying to destroy each other, perhaps literally, then Sunday’s race might be a singular sporting event.

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It’s not uncommon for the two best athletes in a sport to go head-to-head with everything on the line, even if you don’t count matchups of legends in team sports. (Did Tom Brady and Peyton Manning ever really go “head-to-head?” Not exactly.) The Grand Slam tennis tournaments come down to the world No. 1 and 2 fairly often. Muhammad Ali knocked out Joe Frazier. Usain Bolt ran plenty against Justin Gatlin or whoever his biggest rival was in a given moment. These are special events, and it feels silly to follow them with a “but.” If there is one, it’s that they’ll keep happening because of competition formats in those sports. The best swimmers will keep reaching medal heats at the Olympics. The best tennis players will keep meeting at Centre Court at Wimbledon on level footing. The best F1 drivers will keep contending deep into the season for championships—in 2008, Hamilton won his first title on the last lap of the last race—but they won’t usually do it in a dead tie, where the whole season could come down to something as minute as one of them finishing 10th and the other 11th. That won’t happen on Sunday, but only because Hamilton and Verstappen should finish in the top two or three.

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To enrich the experience, Hamilton and Verstappen seem to massively dislike one another. In July, Hamilton knocked Verstappen out of a race in an incident that earned Hamilton a meaningless 10-second penalty in a grand prix he won anyway. Verstappen tweeted about how disrespectful it was for Hamilton to celebrate his victory. Verstappen’s boss, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, called Hamilton, a 36-year-old seven-time champ, an “amateur.” In the fall, Hamilton concern-trolled Verstappen over whether the now-24-year-old Dutchman was feeling pressure associated with contending for his first title. “I think I’m very relaxed about all those things and I really can’t be bothered. I’m very chilled,” a convincing Verstappen replied. During last week’s race in Saudi Arabia, Hamilton called Verstappen “fucking crazy” when the Red Bull driver caused contact with Hamilton at lightning speeds. The defending champion said Verstappen doesn’t care about the rules and was “over the limit.” Most of the time, Verstappen is somewhere between insanely aggressive and aggressively insane. Verstappen’s dad Jos, a former F1 driver, has weighed in that his personal relationship with his son’s rival is “nothing,” which is what I would’ve presumed.

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Entering the last race, Verstappen and Hamilton are tied in points but not exactly tied in the championship race. Verstappen has won nine races to Hamilton’s eight, which means that if neither scored points, Verstappen would be in line to win the championship. That, combined with what may or may not have been a Verstappen effort to crash into Hamilton last week (I sincerely don’t know; I’m still a pretty new fan of the sport) has prompted fans and media alike to wonder if Verstappen might intentionally take out both himself and Hamilton in an effort to win the title via the tiebreaker. That’s less absurd than it sounds; some are convinced it happened in 1994, and 1990’s season came down to similar circumstances. In that case, title leader Ayrton Senna took out both himself and challenger Alain Prost in the penultimate race, when Prost needed to beat him to pull ahead in the championship. Incredibly, there’s video of Verstappen reviewing footage of the Senna-Prost crash, discussing Senna’s apparent strategy, and saying, “I mean, why not?” Years later, former F1 champion Jackie Stewart said Senna admitted to him that he’d taken out Prost on purpose. Senna, who died in an on-track accident in 1994, is Hamilton’s racing idol.

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Horner says Verstappen is a better driver than Hamilton and doesn’t need to resort to an exceptionally dangerous technicality to win the title. Verstappen has insisted he’s just trying to win the race. If Verstappen does crash into Hamilton this week, there will be intense debate about whether he did it on purpose, and if the sport’s governing International Automobile Federation found that he did, it could disqualify him from the championship. That might be hard for the FIA to actually go through with, though (imagine deciding the title race in a conference room), and it might be even harder if—just to draw out a hypothetical—Verstappen’s Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez caused some kind of dustup with Hamilton. There’s some precedent for that kind of mess, too. Red Bull also owns another F1 team, AlphaTauri, and a more conspiratorially minded person might wonder if someone on that team would take a run at Hamilton. Again, I’m still new here and wouldn’t accuse anyone of any impropriety. Meanwhile, the guy who oversees Formula 1 races has just happened to warn drivers in this weekend’s race that any unfair conduct could result in a points deduction in the championship.

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At heart, this is a classic sports story about a young lion, Verstappen, trying to unseat an old master at the top of his game. But there’s enough window dressing around it that it’s not a heartwarming underdog tale, even if you put aside the likelihood that either driver would be elated if the other crashed at high speeds while leaving himself free and clear.

At its core, F1 is about rich people who hate each other making cars go outrageously fast. Hamilton vs. Verstappen is a good encapsulation. I’m among the legions of Americans who caught onto the sport recently after watching Drive to Survive, an influential Netflix show about F1 that functioned by design as unflinching propaganda for the sport. The show leans into everything fun about F1, especially the fast cars and interpersonal dramas. It doesn’t focus much on the Hamilton-Verstappen rivalry, which didn’t kick into high gear until this year, though the actual racing season has turned out to be much more entertaining than any dramatized documentary in that respect. Netflix also avoids pointing out F1’s regular business dealings with authoritarian governments and Big Tobacco, not unlike how league-operated broadcast networks frequently function as state media for American sports’ governing bodies. But the most entertaining thing about F1 right now is not ginned up: The greatest driver of his time is locked in both a captivating title race and a mutual hatred with a worthy rival.

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Sunday’s race is the culmination of a supreme one-on-one series. It’ll be fleeting not just because the title race will be over and done with afterward, but because impending changes to the sport may make Hamilton-Verstappen sequels of this magnitude hard to come by. In 2022, F1 is introducing a new car model that promises to make passing other drivers easier—something that could shake up the sport in general and could make things difficult for the drivers who are used to running in front. A recently introduced budget cap on car development will get lower in 2022, which won’t flatten the playing field but might introduce a touch more parity. Plus, Hamilton is 36 and could be approaching the end of his career. (German great Michael Schumacher, who currently shares the seven-title record with Hamilton, retired for good at 43 in 2012. His first retirement was six years before then.)

Mercedes and Red Bull might remain the dominant teams for another decade, and Hamilton might stay dominant long enough to give his rivalry with Verstappen a multi-year peak. But the only certainty is that on Sunday, one of them will entrench himself at the top of F1, and the other will despise it with the fire of a million suns.

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