Shortly after the most chaotic and enthralling finish to a Formula One title in the sport’s history, Max Verstappen stood on top of his Red Bull car, fists pumping and shaking as if a lightning bolt was surging through him, before making a flying dismount, Frankie Dettori style. Who could blame him? Somehow, against the odds, he had muscled past Lewis Hamilton during a dramatic final lap shootout in the last race of 2021. A first world title was secured. Yet this thriller of an F1 season still had one final vicious twist to come.

While the Dutch driver was celebrating, Hamilton’s Mercedes’ team had spotted two apparent breaches of the rulebook. An appeal went in. Barristers were consulted. Suddenly this was no longer a sporting contest, but a legal one.

And so the world waited. It took until 11pm local time in Abu Dhabi – more than four hours after Verstappen had finished two seconds ahead of Hamilton – for the stewards to reject both Mercedes’ appeals. It was official.

Verstappen really was the world champion. “I’m very relieved,” the Dutchman admitted. “It has been a very stressful day. I’m going to have a tiny drink.” There was then a firm hug for Red Bull principal Christian Horner, who pronounced that the right man had won. “I am disappointed we had to go through that but it has been an amazing year,” Horner said. “He is a deserved world champion and nobody can take that away from him.”

Mercedes certainly tried. First on the track. Then on a lengthy and torturous appeal. The myriad twists and turns of what happened in Abu Dhabi will make great content for the Netflix series, Drive To Survive, which has attracted millions of new fans to F1. But it also felt unsatisfactory for such an intense contest to be settled in the stewards’ room.

The race itself? Well, that was bookended by stunning stanzas at the start and finish, and a sedate middle eight. Verstappen overspun when the lights went off, allowing his rival to go clear. But the Dutchman quickly recovered and on turn six dived on the inside, forcing Hamilton to cut the chicane. It was a smart move and most experts felt Verstappen should have been given the lead. The stewards disagreed.

The safety car meant Max Verstappen was able to close in on Lewis Hamilton and with newer tyres.
The safety car meant Max Verstappen was able to close in on Lewis Hamilton and with newer tyres. Photograph: Sky Sports

After the adrenalised openingthat, the race settled into an uncomplicated narrative: Hamilton leading, Verstappen chasing, but without ever threatening to mount a serious challenge. By lap 53 the Englishman’s long waltz to victory appeared nearly complete, and he was ready to greet the highest step of the podium like an old friend.

At this point Red Bull had pretty much given up too. As Horner admitted with 10 laps remaining: “The pace of the Mercedes is just too strong today. In all honesty they have just had a quicker car. We are going to need a miracle.” Then, from nowhere, Red Bull got an almighty slice of luck. With five of the 58 laps to go Nicholas Latifi crashed his Williams, forcing the safety car out.

Red Bull called Verstappen in for new tyres. But initially it didn’t seem to matter. Laps 54, 55, 56 came and went with the safety car still out and Latifi’s car still not cleared. Then in a few remarkable seconds the race, and the championship, supercharged into life again. First Latifi’s vehicle was cleared. Then Michael Masi made the fateful decision to allow five lapped cars to overtake the safety car, which suddenly meant a shootout between Verstappen and Hamilton.

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As they waited for the signal to go, centimetres separated them. Hamilton had the faster car, but worn tyres. It proved too much of a handicap. Verstappen launched past him, then fended him off as the pair nearly touched wheels, before speeding home.

Yet the title race wasn’t over yet. Mercedes had spotted an apparent breach of sporting regulation 48.8, with Verstappen inching ahead of Hamilton under the safety car before the start of the last lap.

The stakes couldn’t have been any higher. Red Bull knew that if the FIA sided with Mercedes, a potential punishment could include a five-second penalty, which would demote Verstappen to second and give Hamilton the title. Mercedes also argued that article 48.12, relating to lapped cars being allowed to overtake the safety car, had also been breached by race director Masi in the final dramatic stages.

“This was so not right,” fumed Mercedes’ Toto Wolff after Masi’s decision. Masi responded: “It’s a motor race, we went car racing.”

It took some time but both appeals were eventually rejected – with the FIA saying the Dutchman had not broken any rules and that Masi had flexibility under the rulebook to control the safety car. Many will disagree with that decision. But can you really blame him for wanting a head-to-head clash to settle a world title, rather than a last-lap procession behind a safety car? “It’s unbelievable,” said Verstappen afterwards. “Throughout the whole race I kept fighting and then the opportunity came in the last lap. It’s insane. This year will go down in history. Miracles do happen.”

Hamilton, meanwhile, took his defeat with impressive grace, immediately hugging Verstappen and wishing him well. This result means the 36-year-old remains level with Michael Schumacher on seven titles. Still, he has time – and the fastest car in the paddock – on his side.