Max Verstappen took his 17th podium in 21 races this season
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F1

Max Verstappen maintains F1 lead after thrilling 2nd in Saudi Arabia

The Red Bull Racing Honda star finishes 2nd in an incident-packed race at the brand-new Jeddah Corniche Circuit to stay in top spot with just one race remaining in 2021.
Written by Matthew Clayton
8 min readPublished on
Max Verstappen will go into the final race of a gripping 2021 Formula One season with the world championship lead after finishing second in a wild inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on Sunday, the Red Bull Racing Honda star taking his 17th podium in 21 races this season.
The race at the brand-new Jeddah Corniche Circuit promised plenty of action and delivered on that in spades, with incident and accident seeing the 50 laps take place over two and a quarter hours. This was due to two red flags, multiple safety cars and constant virtual safety car periods to remove debris from the high-speed layout.
When the dust settled, a win for Mercedes's Lewis Hamilton, along with the fastest lap of the race, saw the Briton draw level in the Drivers' Championship standings with Verstappen on 369.5 points. The Dutchman takes the lead into the season finale in Abu Dhabi next weekend by virtue of having more race wins this season (nine to eight).
Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing Honda at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on December 5, 2021.
The Verstappen vs Hamilton season-long fight comes down to the finale
The longest season in F1 history effectively comes down to a head-to-head one-race shootout for the title at Yas Marina next weekend, after Verstappen and Hamilton finished first and second in a race for the 13th time in 21 Grands Prix.
Verstappen led for 31 of the 50 laps, but they key moment of a race, which will be talked about for years to come, came with 13 laps remaining, when Verstappen was judged by the stewards to have left the track at the first corner and gained an advantage when under attack from Hamilton, which prompted a five-second penalty.
Hamilton later took the lead at the final corner with seven laps to go and the subsequent time penalty – plus Verstappen nursing fading medium-compound tyres to the finish – saw the eventual winning margin balloon to 11.825 seconds by the chequered flag.
Hamilton's Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas stole the third and final podium place from Alpine's Esteban Ocon on the finish line, the haul of points extending Mercedes's advantage over Red Bull Racing to 28 points in the Constructors' Championship.
"This team has put together a phenomenal campaign this year," Red Bull Racing Honda team principal Christian Horner said. "We've won 10 races, we've taken Mercedes all the way to the final race. The Constructors' (championship), we're on the back foot and it will need a miracle to win that, but we have one more shot to have a go at winning this title with Max and we'll do everything we can."
Here's how a madcap race played out on the streets of Jeddah.

Advantage Max as fitting finale looms

After a season with more twists and turns than the sweeping Jeddah Corniche Circuit, it's fitting that the championship fight will be decided in a one-race battle between the two title protagonists after a battle that's raged since Bahrain in March came to a head in Saudi Arabia.
Verstappen started third on the grid after a mesmerising qualifying effort on Saturday night ended in the wall at the final corner and made a circumspect start to the 50-lap race, slotting in behind Hamilton and Bottas.
A relatively pedestrian opening stint of the race was stopped on Lap 9 when Haas's Mick Schumacher crashed and a red flag was thrown. Verstappen then began the restarted race from pole after Hamilton and Bottas both pitted.
The restart lasted all of four corners before another red flag was thrown after a multi-car crash, with Verstappen beginning the third start of the race from third, behind Hamilton and Ocon, after being deemed to have forced Hamilton wide at the first corner.
Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing Honda at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on December 5, 2021.
Verstappen's 9 wins this year sees him still lead the standings
Verstappen then aced the restart to take first place and it was there he stayed until the Lap 37 incident. After being told to give the place back to Hamilton, the pair made contact as Verstappen slowed and the Mercedes driver ran into the back of the Red Bull, both cars fortunately avoiding terminal damage.
Hamilton then took the lead with seven laps to go and while Verstappen was later voted as the Driver of the Day by the sport's fans, he had plenty to process after a race paced with more incidents than most complete seasons.
"It was quite eventful," Verstappen said, understatedly. "A lot of things happened that I don't fully agree with, but it is what it is. At least I tried it on track to give it all. I'm not sure if the tyres were lasting to the end, I think it was good for the beginning of the last stint, but just lacking a bit of rubber towards the end. Nevertheless, still second."
Verstappen won in Abi Dhabi 12 months ago and knows what's at stake next weekend.
"It will be decided there," he said. "All season it has been up and down and we've had good moments and bad moments. Now we go into the final race tied on points, so basically how we started the season. It's going to be exciting."

Checo squeezed out

One of the drivers to miss out on points through no fault of his own was Verstappen's team-mate Sergio Pérez, after the Mexican was sandwiched between two rivals at the first restart and crashed out of eighth place.
Pérez started fifth on the grid and dropped three places after pitting following Schumacher's accident, but made a strong start to the restarted race before finding himself stuck between Ferrari's Charles Leclerc and AlphaTauri's Pierre Gasly as the field fought for position through the opening sequence of turns.
Leclerc tagged Pérez's car and the Mexican careered into the wall, ending a run of eight straight points finishes on Lap 15.
Sergio Pérez of Red Bull Racing Honda at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on December 5, 2021.
Sergio Pérez was unlucky to make an early exit
"It was a very unfortunate incident," Pérez said. 'There wasn't much Charles could have done. As we were doing the corner, I got touched by him and unfortunately that meant we had the contact."
Third place for Bottas and just one point for McLaren's Lando Norris in 10th place confirms Pérez's fourth place in the world championship in his first year at Red Bull Racing Honda, his highest-ever finish in the Drivers' Standings.

Mixed fortunes for AlphaTauri pair

Given all of the chaos elsewhere, it was a relatively straightforward race on paper for AlphaTauri's Pierre Gasly, who started and finished in sixth place.
The Frenchman was frustrated to qualify just 0.002s behind Pérez and dropped places to Norris and Ocon on Lap 1, before regrouping to seventh at the second start of the race following the Schumacher shunt. He edged ahead of Leclerc at the restart after the incident that eliminated Pérez and stayed in sixth place thereafter to maintain ninth place in the championship with one race remaining.
Pierre Gasly of Scuderia AlphaTauri at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on December 5, 2021.
Pierre Gasly gave it everything en route to 6th
Gasly's team-mate Yuki Tsunoda started from eighth place, but fell to 12th after a chaotic opening lap and was later assessed a five-second penalty for tipping Aston Martin's Sebastian Vettel into a spin on Lap 23, with a resultant pit stop for a new front wing dropping him to the rear of the field. The Japanese rookie eventually finished 14th.

Alpine shine again, Ricciardo snaps skid

Esteban Ocon came oh-so-close to making it two podiums from as many races for Alpine, before being pipped at the post for third by Bottas, the Finn denying the French team a second successive third place by 0.102s after Fernando Alonso's third in Qatar at the previous race.
Elsewhere, Daniel Ricciardo ended a three-race run of outs with a well-taken fifth place for McLaren, but seventh and eighth places for Ferrari pair Leclerc and Carlos Sainz all but secured third place in the Constructors' Championship for the Italian team. They lead their British rivals by 38.5 points with a maximum of 46 available in Abu Dhabi.

A familiar place for a different finale

Formula One's longest-ever season comes to a close in the United Arab Emirates for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on December 12, with the Yas Marina Circuit playing host to the season finale for the 10th time in the 13 years since it debuted on the calendar in 2009.
It's a different track configuration that awaits the teams and drivers this year; among the significant changes include the elimination of the chicane and widening the hairpin at Turn 7 leading onto the 1.2km back straight, while the four sharp corners that made up Turns 11–14 have been replaced by a sweeping banked turn. The new layout shaves 273m from the circuit's length (it's now 5.281km), adds an extra lap to the race distance (now 58 laps) and should improve the overtaking opportunities for drivers, which have typically been hard to come by.
Verstappen won the 2020 season-ending race in Abu Dhabi and has two other podiums at the track, while Pérez's best showing in the UAE capital came in 2015, when he finished fifth for Force India.