The Mercedes team principal, Toto Wolff, has said he fears the Formula One world championship title fight between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen could be decided by a crash between the two drivers.
After the pair tangled repeatedly on Sunday at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, which Hamilton won, Wolff said emotions were running high and the season finale in Abu Dhabi this weekend could turn “messy”.
Following his victory at Jeddah, Hamilton drew level with Verstappen on points with 369.5 apiece. They go to the 22nd and final race of the season for a winner-takes-all showdown. But Verstappen still holds an advantage as grand prix wins are the tiebreaker. With nine wins to Hamilton’s eight, if the pair remain level on points, in the event of neither finishing, Verstappen will take the title.
At Jeddah, Hamilton and Verstappen vied with each other in incidents where they went off track while going wheel-to-wheel and Hamilton hit the back of Verstappen’s car when he slowed to give the lead back to the world champion having been instructed to do so by race control.
Both believed they were in the right but Verstappen was given two penalties by the stewards, one for going off track and one for erratic braking.
The friendly respect between the pair has dissipated swiftly in these final races. Hamilton said Verstappen had gone “over the limit” and suggested he had been driving dangerously enough to take him out of the race.
F1 has some history of title protagonists taking each other out to decide the championship, not least the duels between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in 1989 and 1990.
Wolff was acutely aware of the dangers of a clash in Abu Dhabi or the title decision ending in the hands of the stewards. “I would hope that [Sunday’s] race has enough repercussions that everybody’s going to learn from it and adapt for the final race,” he said.
“Similar driving, if it were to be deemed by the stewards as over the line, would then probably also be penalised in Abu Dhabi, and that could well end in a messy situation for everybody. I don’t think that the championship has deserved a result which was influenced by a collision.”
The situation is exacerbated further by the finale taking place on the Yas Marina circuit. This soulless, enormo-drome in the desert is notoriously difficult for cars to race one another and title deciders in the past have been processions with very few opportunities for drivers to make a difference once track position is decided.
Adjustments have been made to the circuit this year in an attempt to improve the chances for passing but there is no guarantee they will have made a difference, raising the spectre of the driver behind having to take risky, collision-causing chances in order to make a move.
Relations between Mercedes and Red Bull have grown fractious as this intense season has entered its final stages. Mercedes lead the constructors’ championship by 28 points. The team principals, Wolff and Christian Horner, have exchanged accusations and barbs, with Wolff noting the tension had only ratcheted up after the race on Sunday and once more implying he feared the title decider could be marred by incident.
“The emotions are running very, very high,” he said. “As long as we have a clean race fighting for the drivers’ world championship in Abu Dhabi, it was a great season.”
Hamilton is attempting to take his eighth title and Verstappen his first. Hamilton has been on fine form recently, as have Mercedes, winning the past three races.
The lead has changed hands five times this season and Hamilton has been insistent he wants to win the title cleanly.
Yet he noted pointedly that Verstappen’s elbows-out driving style, where he is uncompromising in not giving ground during wheel‑to‑wheel racing, was not in keeping with accepted norms and nor were the stewards policing it clearly.
“We’re supposed to do our racing on track in between the white lines and the rules haven’t been clear from the stewards,” he said.
“From my understanding, I know that I can’t overtake someone and go off track and then keep the position. That’s well known between all us drivers but it doesn’t apply to one of us, I guess.”