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Max Verstappen vs Lewis Hamilton: The story and escalating drama of a remarkable Formula 1 title fight

The most incredible championship battle is down to its final race and, fittingly, there's nothing to split Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton; Charting the increasing hostility of an epic rivalry, the drama, and much more from F1 2021; Watch Abu Dhabi GP live on Sky Sports this weekend

Back before the start of the season, there was hope, optimism, and a sense that things may well just be different in Formula 1 2021.

Finally we may have that Lewis Hamilton vs Max Verstappen title battle, we thought. Finally, Red Bull may have a car to compete with Mercedes.

But this? Nobody predicted this.

One to go: How it stands in the title chases

Drivers' Points
1) Max Verstappen 369.5
2) Lewis Hamilton 369.5
1) Mercedes 587.5
2) Red Bull 559.5

There has been controversy aplenty. Races that have included enough drama to fill a season. Extraordinary skill under pressure. And after all that, Verstappen and Hamilton are, quite incredibly, locked on 369.5(!) points heading into the 22nd and final race, this weekend's Abu Dhabi GP.

Before then, let's look back at what has been a title fight for the ages, one that has spilled over at times, will no doubt live long in the memory, and will have a more-than deserving champion no matter the victor.

The incredible battles: F1 stars at the peak of their powers

Verstappen has long been touted as the man that could end or at least threaten Hamilton's era of dominance, but before 2021 had never quite had the tools at his disposal. Despite blending his outright speed with improved consistency in recent years, his best championship finish coming into this season was third - and with few changes to the cars from Mercedes' utterly dominant 2020, it looked like it may be hard to even top that.

But pre-season testing proved that Red Bull had made a step and Mercedes were, by their standards, struggling - and the predictions of a closer battle have more than come true over a campaign that makes it easy to forget that prior to 2021, Verstappen and Hamilton had barely had an on-track head to head at all.

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In a seldom-seen battle between drivers at their peak but at very different stages of their careers - one desperate for a maiden title and one for a record-breaking eighth - the action has been thrilling, and it kick-started immediately.

In Bahrain, Verstappen and Hamilton locked out the front row before embarking on a race-long duel of strategy and skill, ending in controversy as the Dutchman finally overtook the Mercedes, but off the track and illegally so. He would have to give the place back, and couldn't make the most of his car advantage. Round 1, Hamilton.

Wheel-to-wheel clashes would then follow in Imola, Portugal and Spain, all following a theme of Verstappen being the aggressor and initially getting ahead (more on that shortly), although he would only win the first of those three - finishing second behind Hamilton in the other two as the pair quickly made it clear they were in a league of their own in F1 2021. Barcelona, in particular, was a familiar sight as Hamilton hunted down his prey.

Verstappen would then overtake Hamilton late on in France, a feat that seemed to suggest he was now the title favourite and resulting in one of four wins from five before Silverstone. Where, of course, the rivalry really ignited.

The in-form drivers were jostling for position through the opening lap of Hamilton's home race, and the Mercedes had more speed leading into the high-speed Copse corner but Verstappen, as was his right, closed the gap up the inside. Hamilton still went for it, knocked into Verstappen, shunting him into the barriers and out of the race. A 10-second time penalty followed for the Englishman, but he still won.

Their next clash was also controversial as they both crashed out of the race in Monza, which led to a grid penalty for the next race for Verstappen and only cemented the now-apparent fact that every time these two were near each other on the track, there would be fireworks.

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At the Italian GP, Max Verstappen moved alongside Lewis Hamilton at the first chicane and then made contact, causing both to be beached in the gravel!!

There didn't always have to be contact, as their gripping duel in the USA showed as Verstappen somehow hung on from Hamilton despite his surging pace at the end of the race with a tyre advantage. But Verstappen, who has always been fierce in combat, was especially so in Brazil and most recently Saudi Arabia.

In the Sao Paulo weekend, Verstappen - desperate not to let Hamilton complete an incredible comeback after two grid penalties - ran his rival wide at Turn 4 before Hamilton finally got through cleanly laps later. Their Saudi Arabia battle was then anything but clean, the pair clashing wheel to wheel following two of the three race starts before Verstappen unfairly ran his rival off the track on Lap 37. After the bizarre contact later that lap, Hamilton and Verstappen engaged again, though this time the wounded Red Bull couldn't hold the wounded Mercedes at bay.

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New on-board footage has been released from Max Verstappen's car during the controversial incident with Lewis Hamilton at the Sao Paulo GP.

The skill on show and the excitement has been exhilarating, and we'd be remiss to completely focus just on the contentious moments and not the brilliance from both drivers. Of course, much of that drama - both on and off the track - has been too important, and too pertinent, to gloss over.

On and off track controversy: F1's bad blood

Verstappen and Hamilton got on pretty well at the start of the year, perhaps owing to the fact that, as previously mentioned, they had barely had an on-track battle before 2021, let alone a championship. But even in the early stages of the season, it was clear that something was bubbling between the pair.

"I was basically avoiding us coming together."

Hamilton said those words after both the Emilia Romagna and Spanish GPs following Lap 1, Turn 1 lunges from Verstappen which, according to Hamilton at least, would have ended in collisions had he not backed out. Verstappen, on the other hand, has always insisted his approach is hard but fair.

That mindset from both drivers has been evident through the year and contributed to major moments, controversy in the stewards' room and certainly some animosity in the rivalry between the drivers and the teams.

  • Hamilton and Verstappen's relationship deteriorates

Take Silverstone, when - after being out-duelled by Verstappen in the Sprint the previous day and after seeing his rival's moves all season - Hamilton clearly decided he would not be giving an inch in the race. The rivalry, relatively respectful before that day, then spilled off the track as Verstappen slammed Hamilton as "dangerous" and for his "disrespectful" celebrations, while he was being checked over in hospital. Hamilton, for his part, insisted he didn't even know Verstappen was in hospital.

The decline of that relationship only continued after the scary Italy crash which, while at slower speed than Silverstone, ended up with Verstappen's car on top of Hamilton's. Verstappen blamed Hamilton, Hamilton blamed Verstappen - while also criticising his rival for not "checking on me afterwards".

Mind games and press conference jabs have been commonplace ever since and the war of words has certainly intensified with their most recent clashes in Brazil and especially Saudi Arabia, both occurring with Verstappen aggressively defending the lead from Hamilton. In Jeddah last weekend, things finally appeared to go a step too far for Hamilton after two wheel-to-wheel battles which, again, he backed out of to avoid a big crash, and one very strange coming together. Hamilton branded Verstappen "dangerous" and "crazy" during the race and said after it: "He's over the limit, for sure."

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Lewis Hamilton says Max Verstappen 'is over the limit', following their collision in the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
  • The penalties and the disputes that followed

Contentious penalties have also been rife for the title protagonists this season, having certainly kept F1 Race Stewards busy. Hamilton was the first to get hit with a time penalty, that 10 seconds back in Silverstone, although Red Bull felt that - with their driver in hospital, their car in tatters, and their main rival still managing to win - that wasn't sufficient. The stewards dismissed their request to review that penalty.

Verstappen was next to be penalised, handed a three-place grid penalty for Russia for causing a collision at Monza. This time it was Mercedes who were unhappy with the supposed leniency, as Red Bull doubled up that Sochi penalty with a new engine, making it effectively meaningless. Verstappen would then recover from the back to second.

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Mercedes have been denied a right of review for Max Verstappen's defence from Lewis Hamilton at the Sao Paulo GP.

Incredibly, there have been three penalties in the last three races for either Verstappen or Hamilton. In Brazil, Hamilton, who was already taking a grid drop with a new engine, was disqualified from qualifying for a DRS infringement - unbeknown and unbeneficial to Mercedes - and sent to the back of the grid for the Sprint. A day later after recovering to second, Mercedes felt Verstappen illegally ran Hamilton off the track. Hamilton still managed to win, but Mercedes requested a review from stewards, hoping to get retrospective punishment for the Dutchman. Again, request denied.

In Qatar, Verstappen was handed a grid penalty for a yellow-flag breach in qualifying, then came Saudi Arabia and this time Verstappen was penalised twice. Verstappen picked up a five-second penalty for a Turn 1 tangle with Hamilton as stewards looked unkindly on his ever-aggressive defence, and a 10-second penalty for causing a collision with "erratic" braking later on Lap 37. But the fact both those penalties were also inconsequential in terms of the result - with Verstappen keeping second and his title lead - probably won't have pleased Mercedes, either.

  • Horner and Wolff clash, car legality concerns

The on-track collisions and the off-track penalties have also soured the relationship of Red Bull and Mercedes' influential team bosses, Christian Horner and Toto Wolff.

Horner and Wolff, successful leaders of their team's title-winning eras, have regularly clashed, and regularly criticised one another's star driver. Horner called Hamilton "dangerous" and "desperate" back at Silverstone, Wolff branded Verstappen "over the limit" last weekend in Saudi Arabia. Such comments are probably to expected in such a tight battle, particularly with the teams regularly in the stewards' room fighting their drivers' case.

But it's not just the combination of all the above that has led to the most intense off-track rivalry between two teams in recent memory, as there have been car legality claims raised. First it was Mercedes, who highlighted Red Bull's "flexi wing" earlier on in the season before a rule change came in France, then it was Red Bull who brought forward their own rear wing complaint in Brazil, unhappy with Mercedes' seemingly sudden big straight-line speed advantage.

All that has impacted Horner and Wolff's, previously rather jovial, mood towards each other. "There is no relationship, there's a competition," said Horner recently.

Misfortune, missed opportunities and turning points

As ever in an F1 title fight, there are plenty of moments we haven't even mentioned which - whoever the driver that ends up on the losing side come Sunday night - will point to as significant.

Those include:

  • Emilia Romagna GP: Hamilton crashes into barriers but immediate red flag gives Mercedes chance to repair car immediately
  • Azerbaijan GP: Verstappen loses 25 points through a puncture, though Hamilton then loses shot at the win when hitting 'brake magic' button at restart and dropping out of the points.
  • Hungarian GP: Verstappen involved in multi-lap crash at the start, caused by the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas, and finishes ninth. But Hamilton only finishes second after another restart mistake, failing to pit for slick tyres
  • Belgian GP: Verstappen wins half-points 'race' which only runs for two laps behind Safety Car amid wet weather, Hamilton third
  • Russian GP: Late rain costs Lando Norris' lead as Hamilton wins, but biggest beneficiary is Verstappen who finishes race he started at the back in second
  • Saudi Arabian GP: Verstappen crashes in qualifying but avoids gearbox damage or grid penalty

Given they're level on points but Verstappen has more wins and more poles than Hamilton, and one more unenforced DNF via that Baku puncture, you'd probably say the Dutchman has been the slightly more unfortunate driver this season. Add the extra 10 points that he would have gained for Azerbaijan, for example, and he could afford to finish second and win the title this weekend.

But then Mercedes might say he has also been the luckier driver when it comes to stewards' decisions, particularly in recent races.

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Anthony Davidson takes a look at Lewis Hamilton's overtakes as he moved from the back of the grid to fifth in the Sao Paulo Sprint.

One turning point that stands out in this championship is the Brazilian GP, where Hamilton, already 19 points down on Verstappen who had won the previous two races, suffered a qualifying disqualification which sent him to the back of the grid for the Sprint. On the Saturday he climbed back to fifth, took another five-place engine penalty back to 10th for Sunday's race, and somehow managed to win to make a deficit that had grown to 21 points into just 14.

What is also clear is that both drivers have had purple patches, Verstappen won four in five in early summer and Hamilton has won the last three races leading up to the finale, and both will rue certain moments in a season which has, on the whole, featured a remarkable lack of mistakes given the pressure.

The unpredictability: Will it continue for finale?

A remarkable season has also seen the form book ripped up on several occasions. Just when you think you can predict a favourite in what has been an extremely even battle, the opposite appears to happen.

The French GP? Mercedes' most dominant race in recent years, won by Red Bull. The Hungarian GP? A Red Bull-favoured track even in their down years, though Mercedes were much faster. The United States GP was thought to be a Mercedes-stronghold, but again Verstappen took pole and the win. The list goes on, even most recently in Saudi Arabia where Hamilton was expected to have a much bigger advantage than he eventually did, particularly in qualifying.

F1's last five final-race deciders

Year Leader/Challenger(s) Champion
2016 Rosberg/Hamilton Rosberg
2014 Hamilton/Rosberg Hamilton
2012 Vettel/Alonso Vettel
2010 Alonso/Webber, Vettel, Hamilton Vettel
2008 Hamilton/Massa Hamilton

That leads to an incredibly exciting finale in Abu Dhabi.

Going on last season's form, you'd put Verstappen as the favourite - given he absolutely crushed Mercedes' at the 2020 race, even with a worse car over the season. But going on recent form, you'd have Hamilton as the favourite - the seven-time champion and Mercedes seeming to have timed their form perfectly at the climax of the season.

It is expected to suit Red Bull's package more than Saudi Arabia did, although another unknown for the weekend is the brand-new layout for the track, with three key corners changed in a bid to improve the spectacle.

The key live Sky F1 times for Abu Dhabi

FRIDAY On Air Session start
Practice One 9am 9.30am
Practice Two 12.45pm 1pm
Practice Three 9.45am 10am
Qualifying 12pm 1pm
Abu Dhabi Grand Prix 11.30am 1pm

To put it simply, it's impossible to call. And we wouldn't want it any other way.

On Sunday come 1pm, the talking will stop. And after 55 laps, we will know who are 2021 champion is.

Verstappen vs Hamilton, the title showdown. It all ends here, live on Sky Sports F1.

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