Max Verstappen has prevailed in an astonishing last-race, last-lap shoot-out, overtaking Lewis Hamilton on the final circuit to claim the Formula One world championship.
But Hamilton’s beaten Mercedes team were left protesting the result after a dramatic finish which was allowed to unfold after a safety car had been employed.
The Red Bull driver Verstappen stormed past the seven-time champion to win the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit on Sunday, having benefited from the late safety car that bunched up the pack.
Hamilton had appeared to be charging to glory, easily holding Verstappen at bay in the closing laps only for a crash for the Williams of Nicholas Latifi to change the course of motor racing history.
Confusion reigned as Australia’s under-fire race director Michael Masi appeared to change his mind to allow lapped cars to pass the safety car – meaning that Verstappen had a clear run at Hamilton over one final lap and on much faster tyres.
Mercedes contested that only the cars between the then leading Hamilton and Verstappen were allowed to unlap themselves during a late safety car stage while others weren’t.
The other protest was against Verstappen for overtaking under the safety car.
The Dutchman broke into tears as he crossed the line, professing his love for his team, sitting by his car after bringing it to a stop and saying: “This is unbelievable guys. Can we do this for another 10 to 15 years together?”
Verstappen said later: “It’s unbelievable. I kept fighting the whole race. I had the opportunity in the last lap. It’s incredible, I’m still having a cramp. It’s insane.
“These guys, my team, they deserve it. I love them so much. I’ve enjoyed working with them since 2016 but this year has been incredible.”
Hamilton looked sure to take a record eighth championship after passing pole sitter Verstappen off the line.
The Brit had started alongside his fellow title protagonist on the front row, both on the same amount of points, but was quicker off the mark, leading the race into turn one of the reconfigured track.
Verstappen tried to hit back at the hairpin at turn seven as he lunged to try to regain his lead.
Hamilton went off the track as a result, rejoining having missed the turn, but it was deemed he had no penalty to answer for as a season punctuated by collisions, near-misses and contradicting stewarding calls looked set for another twist.
Hamilton then dominated but did not have it all his own way as he came into the pits on lap 15 to avoid being undercut by Verstappen but emerged behind the sister Red Bull of Sergio Perez, who held him up brilliantly, costing Hamilton over six seconds and allowing Verstappen to close in.
Once clear, though, Hamilton rebuilt his gap and all seemed rosy until a virtual safety car was deployed to clear the stricken Alfa Romeo of Antonio Giovinazzi, with Verstappen pitting for fresh tyres as Hamilton stayed out.
Hamilton was still untouchable, Red Bull boss Christian Horner admitting the team needed a “miracle” with the gap at 11 seconds with 10 laps remaining.
And a miracle is exactly what Red Bull got as Latifi crashed into the barriers and brought out a safety car with just five laps remaining, Verstappen stopping for a third time and strapping on more new tyres.
Time, however, appeared to be on Hamilton’s side as the laps ticked down behind the safety car and race director Masi opted to keep the five lapped cars between the leader and Verstappen in place.
He then changed tact, sending the quintet past Hamilton and the safety car meaning there was nothing between the title rivals as the pace car peeled off with just a single lap remaining.
Verstappen was ready to pounce and sprung, although Hamilton did battle back until he had nothing left to give.
As the unbelievable action unfolded on track, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff fumed at Masi over the radio for his change in decision.