The winner to take it all in a fitting finale

Finley Crebolder
Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton in Parc Ferme. Saudi Arabia December 2021

Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton in Parc Ferme after the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. Saudi Arabia December 2021

One of sport’s greatest ever battles is getting a fitting finale, with the title contenders heading into it level on points for the first time in 47 years.

On a sweltering night in Saudi Arabia last time out, things between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton heated about more than ever, and not because of the weather.

The Dutchman could have delivered the killer blow or at least taken an advantage to Abu Dhabi, and did everything in his power to try and do so, while the Brit had no intentions of backing off and letting him.

That led to the two of them twice coming mighty close to crashing before somewhat inevitably doing so, causing penalties to be issued and complaints to be made from all parties involved.

None of that matters now though because, when all was said and done, they crossed the line in P1 and P2, with Hamilton taking the win and the fastest lap, putting them level on 369.5 points ahead of the final round.

If you want an indication of which driver will be the favourite there, you need only look at how Verstappen drove in Jeddah. There was an air of desperation to his racing, and that’s undoubtedly in part because he knew that his rival would likely be the quicker of the two in Abu Dhabi.

While the Red Bull man won comfortably there in 2020, the situation is completely different now. Mercedes won’t be taking it easy as they did back then, and there’s little that they have the faster car at this point in the season having won each of the last three races courtesy of Hamilton.

Verstappen can take some encouragement though from the fact that he was set to take pole position comfortably at the penultimate round before crashing at the final corner. If he can do so at Yas Marina, he’ll take a big step towards his first World Championship.

That’s because track position is absolutely crucial at the circuit, with overtaking difficult and staying ahead of a much faster car very doable. Just ask Vitaly Petrov and Fernando Alonso.

For that same reason and the immense straight-line speed of the Mercedes, the 24-year-old will have a huge mountain to climb if he starts behind Hamilton. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say the qualifying session will be one of the most important in the history of the sport.

After all, the outcome of the battle between them will determine whether or not Hamilton breaks arguably the biggest record there is to be broken, World Championships won.

With new regulations threatening to shake up the pecking order next year and a new team-mate to contend with, he’ll know better than anyone that this could be his last chance to take his eighth title. It doesn’t get any bigger than this.

Given the importance, the fight at the front was always going to hog the spotlight in the final race, but that will particularly be the case because most other significant battles are all but decided already.

Sergio Perez’s DNF last time out along with Valtteri Bottas finishing P3 ended his hopes of taking P3 from the Finn in the standings, while it also led to Mercedes extending their lead in the Constructor’s Championship to 28 points.

All of that means the primary role of both drivers will be to help out their team-mates in any way they can. Which of them does that job better could be hugely important.

While you can expect to see some teamwork between drivers at the top two teams though, there most likely won’t be much of it at Ferrari.

With a 38.5 gap behind them to McLaren, P3 in the standings is all but secured, meaning Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz will most likely be free to race each other as they did in Saudi Arabia. Given the Spaniard is just 8.5 points behind the Monegasque in the standings and would no doubt love to win their intra-team battle, things could well get feisty.

Lando Norris meanwhile is slap bang in the middle of them in the championship and will be hoping to finish ahead of both to give the excellent season he’s had the happy ending it deserves.┬áThe other McLaren of Daniel Ricciardo has less to play for in the final race after all but securing P8 in the standings with a top-five finish in Jeddah.

The same can be said for Pierre Gasly, who is now 15 points behind the Aussie while his team trails Alpine by 29. Given they have nothing to play for, Red Bull will no doubt be expecting both AlphaTauri drivers to help out Verstappen if possible.

It has been an excellent team effort from Alpine to see off the threat of Gasly and co in recent rounds, and with that job done, Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso will surely turn their attention to one another, just like the Ferrari drivers, with just five points between them.

The Spaniard has only been outscored by a team-mate twice in his F1 career while the Frenchman has never done so, but the latter was comfortably the stronger of the two at the last race weekend…

In terms of both the Drivers’ and the Constructors’ Championship, there’s not too much to play for below the Alpine pair with the rest of the positions pretty set unless some chaos provides opportunities for some of the slower cars to score big points.

Such an opportunity would be particularly sweet for Kimi Raikkonen, who will be bidding farewell to the sport at the circuit that played host to one of his finest hours in 2012. We’re hoping for some more radio gold this time around, but not expecting any outpouring of emotion from the Iceman.

It’s an absolute certainty that there’ll be plenty of that elsewhere though as the final chapter in one of F1’s greatest ever battles unfolds at the front of the field. It’s going to be stressful, isn’t it?

As ABBA said in their aptly named song though: “The winner takes it all, the loser has to fall. It’s simple and it’s plain, why should I complain?”

We’re certainly not.

 

Could the track changes in Abu Dhabi create better racing?

Could the track changes in Abu Dhabi create better racing in the Grand Prix?