Then Latifi comes to grief
As the race progressed, it became clear that Hamilton’s gift for preserving the life in his tyres would likely get him safely over the line and well clear of Verstappen. As Christian Horner told Sky F1 from the pit wall, Red Bull needed a massive slice of luck to bring them back into contention – and that’s exactly what the team got on lap 53 when Latifi smacked the barrier at Turn 14 after losing grip in his battle with Mick Schumacher’s Haas.
A safety car intervention was the only option – and with five to go it began to look like the season might finish under caution. But then the marshals worked quickly to clear the mess, and Michael Masi’s day unravelled. At first he made it clear lapped cars would not be allowed to pass the leader and re-join the tail of the field, presumably because it would take too long with so few laps to run down. Then after complaints from Red Bull, he audibly dithered – and changed his mind. Well, half-changed his mind. He allowed the cars between Hamilton and Verstappen to come past, but not the others still running – which meant racing could resume on the final lap.
Under the safety car, once again Mercedes might have chosen to pit Hamilton to get rid of his old tyres – but it wasn’t an option at such a late stage and with no way of knowing whether racing would resume. All Lewis could do, other than swear on the radio, was sit tight and hope. But with Red Bull again pitting Verstappen for a last throw of the dice for red-walled softs, he was a sitting duck when Masi pressed the green button. Verstappen swept into the lead on that final lap, with Hamilton powerless to respond.
The new world champion and his team openly accepted they had been lucky, as Wolff almost exploded in frustration. Hamilton dealt with his bitter disappointment with admirable good grace and maturity, which did him huge credit. Then inevitably, his team protested the result, first on a dubious claim that Verstappen had passed Hamilton under the safety car when Lewis had brought the field to a virtual crawl, and second (and more seriously) on Masi’s confusion over the lapped cars and his failure to adhere to the FIA’s own regulations. It took four hours for the protest to be thrown out and for the Red Bull celebrations to resume.