Max Verstappen has recalled the last lap of the Abu Dhabi finale, revealing he suffered painful cramp in his leg but was adamant he was “not going to finish second”.
Going into the final race of the season needing to beat Lewis Hamilton to win a first World title, Verstappen lost the lead of the grand prix to his Mercedes rival off the line.
He tried to regain it, diving up the inside of Hamilton at Turn 6, but an off-track moment for the Briton meant he was able to stay ahead.
Hamilton had the better pace on the day and had built up a lead of over 10 seconds when the Safety Car came out after Nicholas Latifi crashed late in the race.
Race director Michael Masi allowed the cars between Hamilton and Verstappen to unlap themselves, opening the door for the Dutchman to fight Hamilton for the lead when the lights turned green.
On fresher tyres, having pitted behind the Safety Car, the Red Bull driver tried to make a move at the restart but could not make it stick.
Five corners in he lunged up the inside of Hamilton, taking the lead, the win and the World title.
However, it could have been a very different story if Verstappen had not managed to fight through the cramp that seized his leg.
“What was going on in my head?” he recalled in an interview with The Guardian. “I was like ‘I need to overtake him, there’s only one option here, I’m not going to finish second’.
“I tried to be really on it with the restart. It was all working well until I crossed the line and started to feel cramp in my leg.
“It’s one of the most painful things that can happen because you’re going full throttle for a long time. You feel the muscle clenching and becoming like a tennis ball.
“Of course the adrenalin helps because if it were to happen when you’re just walking around, you cannot move. It’s impossible. But there was no option, I had to.
“So I was just keeping it full throttle and I could feel my leg hurting more and more. Luckily, Turn Five arrived and I went for the [overtaking] move. I had like three seconds off throttle.
“You then have two very long straights and on the second one, where Lewis came back at me, I could feel my foot vibrating. I couldn’t control it because the muscle was having a spasm. My foot on the last sector was like this…”
Shaking his leg, he continued: “If you go back over the data you will not see a very smooth throttle input. I was screaming on the radio (after he had won) but the whole lap my foot was going like that.
“It was completely done. One more lap and I couldn’t have finished the race like that. The stress levels were so high in the final lap that probably your body reacts to that. But you cannot give up.
“I knew I had more grip so I was like ‘I’ll surprise them on that corner’. Even my dad didn’t expect me to do it there. These kind of things make the difference. But two long straights were coming up.”
The 24-year-old went from despair to elation in the space of one lap.
“I couldn’t believe it, especially after the whole race when everything looked like it was not happening,” he said. “Suddenly your emotions swing 100 per cent the other way. So crazy.
“It’s what we had worked for my whole life. It was always my dream. Once you cross the line, you realise you finally have it. I jumped out of the car and all the mechanics and my dad were running towards me.”