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Of the possible outcomes for this weekend's Formula 1 finale at Yas Marina, only one feels impossible: That Max Verstappen or Lewis Hamilton will claim the top spot cleanly. No, I predict this season will end in a train wreck, buried under a pile of controversy, then sunk by a flood of blowhard commentary.
If you have to ask "why?", well you haven't been reading the literature, dude, or tuning in to one of the most exciting and controversial seasons in about a decade. We enter the final race at Yas Marina circuit with the top two drivers exactly level on points, something that hasn't happened since Fittipaldi and Regazzoni went toe-to-toe for the 1974 title. That race ended with a whimper when Regazzoni's Ferrari sputtered to a no-points finish, sealing Fittipaldi's title. But it's hard to imagine such a letdown in 2021.
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Because most of the drama here is pure. Max Verstappen's raw, incandescent talent grating against the patient, masterful craft of seven-time champ Lewis Hamilton. To heighten the stakes, both racers are chasing history. For Hamilton it's an unprecedented eighth title, one that would vault him above Michael Schumacher as the winningest driver in F1 history. For champion-elect Verstappen, it's that elusive first, which many expect to pave the way for a decade of dominance. There's a changing of the guard happening within F1's pool of talent, but if anyone can hold the throne a bit longer, it's the 36-year-old Hamilton.
Of course, this season's been anything but a pure contest. The margins between Hamilton and Verstappen are so thin that both Red Bull and Mercedes have pulled deeply from their bag of tricks to gain slim advantages.
More surprising than racers and their teams employing the dark arts (racers 'gon race, after all) is the FIA's allowance for them. When Hamilton turned in suspiciously wide during a first-lap overtake and punted Verstappen into a wall, the stewards deemed it a "racing incident." For Verstappen's near-spearing of Hamilton's Mercedes at the Brazil Grand Prix, the race stewards "noted the incident" but didn't investigate. The pattern has repeated, one escalation piled on another and another.
That slow boil erupted last weekend at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. Verstappen, ahead on points, knew he could essentially seal a championship if Hamilton didn't finish the race. Several times, Verstappen missiled his Red Bull dangerously across the bow of his rival's Mercedes, inviting contact with Hamilton that'd surely end a title challenge. When that failed, Verstappen brake checked Hamilton on the circuit's long straight. You could interpret that incident to miscommunication, maybe, if it hadn't followed a string of near-disasters.
Verstappen's moves were blatant and dangerous. To call them simple "racing incidents" would be obtuse. So the FIA amassed its powers and took decisive action, delivering Verstappen a 10-second wrist slap which had exactly zero implications in the championship. In post-race interviews, Verstappen scoffed at idea that he'd done anything wrong, thumbing his nose — as usual — at the rule book.
Who could blame him?
As tempting as it'd be to point a finger at Verstappen, he's only probing the edges of the envelope that the FIA have built. Their' "let them race" mantra has led us here, to a finale likely decided by attrition, writ large in slivers of shattered carbon diffuser and crumpled crash barriers.
While they're tied on points, Verstappen has won more races this season. As such, the conditions that ratcheted up the drama at the Saudi Grand Prix are heightened. If a crash takes both cars out, Max lifts the trophy.
Everybody and their granny knows this, so you'd expect the ground rules to be laid out by beforehand: Any major crash with a whiff of the dark arts will be punished by a 1-point reduction in the championship standings. But with their tepid responses to incidents throughout the season, we know the FIA simply don't have the mangoes to affect the championship by direct intervention.
What then, should we expect from Verstappen in this finale?
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