Newly-crowned Formula 1 world champion Max Verstappen says he felt sympathy for title rival Lewis Hamilton given the way the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix ended, adding that Hamilton “did everything right throughout the whole race”.
While the season-long battle between Verstappen and Hamilton boiled over on several occasions, notably with their collisions in the British, Italian and Saudi Arabian Grands Prix, and created an intense rivalry, the Red Bull driver understands what his opponent went through in the closing stages of Sunday’s race.
Hamilton was controlling the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix with an advantage of almost 12 seconds when the safety car was deployed to clear away Nicholas Latifi’s crashed Williams. This allowed Verstappen to make a pitstop for fresh soft Pirellis and take the controversial restart right behind Hamilton after the lapped cars between them were allowed to pass the safety car.
He passed Hamilton to win the title at Turn 6 on the one-lap dash to the chequered flag.
“There was one side incredibly happy and one side was disappointed,” said Verstappen when asked if he felt sympathy for Hamilton given the circumstances of the race.
“Of course, I felt for Lewis. He did everything right throughout the whole race.
“But F1 can be very unpredictable and it can go either way. It could be the other way round as well and I would be controlling the race and then I lose it in the last lap.
“Unfortunately, it’s also part of racing.”
While Verstappen was happy to sympathise with Hamilton, he also stressed that he and the Red Bull team still had to make the most of the situation to win the drivers’ championship.
The late-race safety car and the confusion over the restart procedure, which was the subject of a protest – and a potential appeal – from Mercedes, created the opportunity to take an unexpected win but the key decisive moment was his pass of Hamilton at Turn 6.
“I saw that I was not catching enough,” said Verstappen when asked how he felt in the closing stages before the safety car came out.
“I just told myself ‘I will keep pushing until the end, I’m not going to give up’ and that’s what we did.
“The safety car came out – we needed a miracle and it did happen.
“But you still need to then capitalise on that, you need to go for the overtake and that’s what we did.
“It was a dramatic end.”
Verstappen admitted that there were times during the ebbs and flows of the season when he thought the championship might not go his way.
Since Hamilton took the lead in the championship with victory in the first race of the year in Bahrain, the championship lead changed hands five times, with the Mercedes driver winning three consecutive races prior to the Abu Dhabi finale to level the scores heading into the final race.
“It’s been a tough season,” said Verstappen. “We definitely had some dominant races, but also, in general, Mercedes was as strong.
“It’s been a really enjoyable battle, having two teams fighting and pushing flat out to the end.
“Of course, there are times when you think ‘hmmm this might not be it, we might not hang on till the end’. But there are always surprises and some races we have won which we shouldn’t.
“Then also, I had quite a bit of bad luck, with the tyre in Baku and these kind of things. So, we also lost a lot of point.
“All in all, it’s been an intense but crazy season.”