A controversial race, dirty tricks and a long night, was how one commentator put it. And he was not wrong. While the high speed street race circuit in Jeddah might require some review because of the nature and number of collisions, the two title contenders – Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen – threw everything but the kitchen sink in their bid to finish Formula One’s 2021 season on top, leaving it all to the final race in Abu Dhabi in a nail biting finish to the bitter end.

Three standing starts, two red flags, two yellow flags, multiple virtual safety cars to lose count by the end of the two and a half hour humidity and attrition filled race, too many hair raising accidents to justify. Not what Formula 1 fans had in mind when the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was announced for the latter half of the 2021 season. That the high speed street circuit was set for some fireworks and deadly collisions seemed marked from the very outset, the glimpse of it coming very early on the weekend.

Max Verstappen, leading by eight points before the start of the penultimate race of the season, had even alluded to Formula 1 selling out to money, something that might not have endeared him to the powers that be. And his words came not like sour grapes at the end of the race but rather even before free practice on Friday when Ferrari’s Charles LeClerc walked away after a horrific accident.

But if there was any indication of just how tense and tight the race was going to be, the qualifying session on Saturday was certainly the mildest preview of it.

Caught between traffic and tight corners, Red Bull seemed to have shoved a tight game plan onto their 24 year old Dutch driver. With Hamilton finding speed in Q3, Verstappen found another gear and was well onto his way to clocking the fastest lap of the circuit and possibly the season in thrilling fashion when the final turn saw his front right tyre lock up and his rears hitting the barrier wall, sending his dreams of starting on the brand new circuit on pole crashing down.

That might have played into the pressure on the night as the Dutchman was in sight of his first ever world drivers championship provided he finished the race ahead of the seven time champion by a margin of eighteen points. But as it turns out, the season will now go into the final race of the season which has happened before but only for the third time in Formula 1’s history with the top two contenders tied on equal points.

The end of the race saw Hamilton behave with the air of someone with a sense of entitlement – misplaced some might say, bringing to mind Boris Becker’s allusion of the Wimbledon Centre Court being his living room that he did not want to give up to his compatriot, Michael Stich, or any other for that matter, the grumpiness and bitterness evident.

However, Hamilton had been less than clear on his own tactics, which was evident not only in the course of this race but throughout the season through hot headed discussions with his own team and race engineer in a season that has tested them like never before. It explains why Formula 1 was called boring after the era of Schumacher. Not anymore and Formula 1 will have to thank the young guns and Verstappen after this season, irrespective of the outcome, though perhaps not on this night.

The desperation of the multiple time world champion was all too clear to see when he was heard grumbling over the call about the Red Bull’s gamble paying off because they did not use the safety car to change tyres as Mercedes had and were able to do so after the race was red flagged three laps later.

When the positions were swapped, Hamilton’s dismay was once again evident as he asked his team was the game plan would be now that none of the drivers would need to stop ahead of the second standing start. His engineer wisely reminded him that this was now a race to the finish but that he was in the faster car and had that advantage, which was true as it turned out.

Toto Wolf’s extreme reactions as the team principal this year are as telling as Hamilton’s whining over the radio through the 2021 season largely because seven titles had come virtually without a contender worthy of putting the pedal to the metal. That Hamilton, Wolff and Mercedes are being made to sweat literally and metaphorically does not paint the veteran driver in a flattering light this late in his career, though he might have the results to show for it.

Controversy was triggered after Hamilton’s Mercedes underwent a fifth engine change before Brazil which turned his fortunes around. Finding that extra 0.5 second pace has been monumental as well as controversial as Verstappen has virtually monstrously bullied his less superior car into contention from the very get go this season. With the FIA finding a rear wing discrepancy, it has been an embarrassment Mercedes have not been able to overcome.

While there has been debate over whether Mercedes or any team should be penalized in an incremental manner after the allotment of three engine changes, the fact of the matter remained that even Hamilton appeared to freeze which did contribute to the now infamous collision on the 37th lap of this very explosive race. The red flag and tyre change, equally controversial, is not the privy of Verstappen alone though it seemed hardly likely that Hamilton would have used different tactics if the positions were swapped.

Hamilton seemed to even have an opinion on the extent of damage to the tyre barrier wall after Mick Schumacher’s crash, injecting some controversy though how Red Bull could have manoeuvred that in the playbook of the stewards and race director to induce a red flag is hard to find traction.

Formula 1 fans did not deem Hamilton the champion but rather voted Verstappen the best driver on the day. To the Dutchman, it felt like vindication after he was slapped with reprimands, offers to give up his place, penalties and even a cold shoulder from Hamilton at the end of the race. “It is what it is,” and “so it’s like that” were Verstappen’s stoic words even after he was given a further 10 second penalty for causing the collision after the race, although in the context of the race, it did not damage his second place standing. “It’s not Formula 1,” was all Verstappen had to say while Hamilton claimed Verstappen did think the rules applied to him.

What really won the day in the hearts of fans was not Verstappen’s “dangerous driving” as labelled by Hamilton which was not unlike the pot calling the kettle black but rather the way Verstappen punched his way through the enormous challenges of having a more powerful engine breathing down his neck.

Hamilton is a champion in his own right, with his ability to speed through the traffic when he found himself down in the trenches at the back of the grid and for being able to find another gear when push came to shove. But hunger can only get so far as can an unchallenged season. Mercedes have also ran on a lot on luck this year round and the day did seem to come in large packages for them.

Hamilton’s over the top antics in Silverstone after he appeared to have pulled an all too aggressive move on the surging Dutchman which put the latter in the hospital as a precautionary measure already suggested this would end up dirty if it went the distance. Much of it was on show on the night when in an unusual scenario, even the race director, Michael Masi, found himself negotiating with the two teams about race positions when the race was red flagged.

Amongst the many peculiar things about this race was not only how tight cornered with several blindspots this track was that gave little intel to the teams, but also, how Verstappen was asked to give up the place for making an overtaking move that saw him move ahead of Hamilton after running wide off the track, not by the race stewards but rather by the race director who seemed to be the arbitrator at the negotiating table that involved both teams communicating and returning with their wish list.

Some fans suggested that perhaps it was best to hand Hamilton and Mercedes the trophies this way as well with Christian Horner, the Red Bull principal, talking about missing Charlie Whiting, Masi’s predecessor who passed away suddenly in 2019.

That Ocon was also forgotten by Masi at one point only to correct himself once Red Bull pointed it out that Verstappen would lose not one but two places on the restart said it all of just how chaotic and confusing and unusual it had all been.

In the end, conjecture that Verstappen need not have done so since he was anyway slapped a five second penalty even as he was giving up position again on track on lap 44 gathered ground not only in the Red Bull garage but also, amongst on air commentators and fans worldwide.

While Verstappen’s moves bordered on desperation, knowing how aggressive Hamilton can get – he did play mind games when on the restart knowing Verstappen was starting on pole, he slowed down the rest of the pack on the formation grid and at one point even had the race director tell Mercedes that Hamilton’s moves were borderline on black and white penalization, what impressed Formula 1 fans in a constantly interrupted race was how Verstappen could pull moves when given a chance, as he did after giving up his place behind Esteban Ocon and Hamilton only to use Hamilton’s distraction to overtake both cars on the third restart in one of the pulsating moves that has made him a sight to watch.

The collision when it did come, as it was expected, has to be said was more the doing of miscommunication than driver error. Although it appeared that Verstappen’s Red Bull did make a sudden move unexpectedly when Hamilton did not seem to react, which Hamilton labelled “a brake test” by Verstappen whom only seconds ago he said was “f****** crazy” over the radio, it seemed that while Verstappen was trying to execute orders to slow down and let Hamilton pass to give him the place back, Hamilton and Mercedes claim that the order came through only much later even as Verstappen was looking to leave enough room, taking both team and driver by surprise.

But while it might be true, the fact that Hamilton appeared clueless, which eventually led to him hitting Verstappen’s car as the Dutchman moved belatedly, it might have well been an an opportunistic move on the part of both drivers, with the DRS range in sight, for each not taking to the mandated move, as other drivers contend.

Furthermore, many questioned why Hamilton did not simply take the opportunity to see a slower Verstappen and an empty racing line and simply accelerate and overtake him as he would normally do. Was that caution or was that simply a moment lost even on the champion looking desperately for this world record eighth title? Jeddah has certainly thrown up a lot of uncomfortable questions for Formula 1.