Both tempers and rubbers have cooled down 48 hours after the first ever Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. Even Netflix's Drive to Survive could not have scripted what transpired after the red lights went out on Sunday night: red flags, standing starts, safety cars, virtual safety cars, crashes, penalties, controversies—the Grand Prix at the 6.1km Jeddah Corniche Circuit—touted as the fastest street circuit on the calendar—delivered what was one of the craziest Formula 1 races of recent times.
The focus, of course, was on the increasingly fractious title battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, where the British legend kept his hopes alive of overtaking the last record in F1 not in his name—he is level with Michael Schumacher on seven drivers' titles—by snatching victory from the Red Bull driver with the two overtaking each other in hair-raising fashion before Hamilton finally zoomed ahead. The Dutchman was also handed two time penalties (five and 10 seconds) during and after the race.
Even though the penalties did not affect Verstappen's second place finish, it left fans and experts divided on the decision of the stewards. Was the young, rising driver hard done by? Or is he a really reckless driver who pushes at the limits of what is considered safe, especially at a circuit which gave no room for error as proven by five of the 20 drivers who crashed out after heavy impacts.
It's not just about Jeddah. Verstappen, 24, has often been criticised for "dangerous" driving, something Hamilton archly referred to in the presence of the Dutchman during Sunday's post-race press conference.
But there is a larger issue to address here: has there ever been a great driver in F1 who has not exploited rules, pushed the boundaries, taken heart-stopping overtaking decisions or even engineered a crash in a bid to win?
The late great Ayrton Senna, and there's no figure in F1 remembered as fondly as the Brazilian master, was as ruthless and aggressive on the track as Michael Schumacher. Senna crashed into four-time world champion Alain Prost at both the 1989 and 1990 Japanese Grands Prix. Schumacher crashed with Damon Hill at the season-ending Australian Grand Prix which handed him the 1994 title.
Three years later, a crash took away Schumacher's chance at the championship when the Ferrari legend collided with the Williams of Jacques Villeneuve in Jerez. He was, in an unprecedented move, disqualified from the entire championship.
"If you're no longer going for a gap that exists, you're no longer a racing driver," Senna had famously said in an interview to three-time world champion Jackie Stewart when the Briton asked why the Brazilian crashed so often.
As explained by former F1 driver Martin Brundle, who raced against both Senna and Schumacher, in an interview with Top Gear, the three-time world champion would often put himself in a position where his rival would have to risk a collision in order to overtake. If he went for the gap, both could crash out.
If he didn't, then psychologically, Senna would have the upper hand every time the two drivers raced each other.
Verstappen is very similar. Unrelenting and fighting for every inch of the track, he too crashes often. Sometimes with teammates, like in 2018 in Baku, Azerbaijan, where Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo and Verstappen, having already banged into each other twice in a tense duel, finally exited the race after a massive crash.
This year Verstappen and Hamilton have banged cars simply because the Dutchman is fighting a frantic, season-long battle for supremacy with the Briton.
The two came together at the British Grand Prix in July where Verstappen crashed out and Hamilton, despite being handed a penalty, went on to win the race. At the Italian Grand Prix in Monza in September, Hamilton came out of a pit-stop into a chicane and tried to muscle past Verstappen, the move ending with the Red Bull car infamously parked atop the Mercedes. The two came together once again in Jeddah when the Dutchman was told to hand over his position due to an illegal overtake. "This is not the first time that I've had to avoid a collision," Hamilton said at the presser.
Verstappen was also criticised by Hamilton and others for the way he gave the position back to Hamilton at a strategic corner so that he would have drag-reduction system (DRS) at the next straight, immediately overtaking the Mercedes driver.
But Hamilton himself had done exactly that, back when he was a young driver trying to make his mark. That was against Kimi Raikkonen at the 2008 Belgian Grand Prix.
Hamilton, then driving for McLaren, took the chequered flag and sprayed champagne atop the rostrum only for the stewards to hand him a 25-second penalty subsequently, which put him in third and handed the victory to then title rival Felipe Massa of Ferrari.
With only one race to go for this riveting season, who is to say that the pair won't come together again at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this Sunday?
Nothing separates the two title rivals. After 21 rounds, both are locked with the same number of points—369.5. This is only the second time in F1 history that the drivers' championship will be tied going into the final race. The first instance was way back in 1974 when Emerson Fittipaldi won the crown over Clay Regazzoni at the season-ending United States Grand Prix, in a race that witnessed a horrifying and fatal crash.
Next weekend, the math is simple. The one finishing ahead in Abu Dhabi will win the championship. If both crash out , Verstappen will be champion by virtue of having more wins—9 to Hamilton's 8—unless the stewards have something to say about the crash.