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Pay drivers in Formula 1, Guanyu Zhou joins Alfa Romeo, Oscar Piastri, financial support, Nikita Mazepin, Lance Stroll

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You’d be naive to think that Formula 1 is a meritocracy.

Like most sports – and in fact, like most things on the planet – cash is king when it comes to the top level of motorsport. The easiest way to gain influence is to buy it.

This is where ‘pay drivers’ come in. It’s a tag that, while harsh and sometimes misused, describes those who can (at least partially) attribute their place in F1 to financial backing.

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And due to the incredible costs of the sport, pay drivers are in essence a necessary evil; and always have been.

But that’s not to say they’re pure evil.

Max vs. Lewis: EVERY angle revealed! | 01:27

THE PRICE OF SUCCESS

The link between money and glory in F1 is clear. In 2021, the sport set a budget cap of $US145 million – though not a true cap, because many aspects are excluded, including salaries for the drivers and the team’s three highest-paid employees.

Top teams like Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari were said to be spending over $US400 million a year in 2019; meanwhile Williams’ budget was $US132 million.

Because of the exclusions in the cost cap, the big teams are still spending more than the backmarkers – even though they’ve complained about things becoming more difficult this year – and some of the smaller outfits aren’t paying the maximum, because they can’t afford to.

Until a recent sale, Williams struggled for cash annually, with poor results compounding with their natural disadvantages as a pure F1 constructor, as compared to manufacturers like Ferrari or Mercedes which have other ways to earn money.

And so the top teams never even need to consider pay drivers, but for years, teams like Williams have.

The most famous recent example is Lance Stroll, whose billionaire father Lawrence spent a reported $80 million just to get him a seat at Williams in 2017. That included giving him the best engineers at junior level and a test program in a 2014 Williams, meaning when he finally entered F1, he had more experience at the level than almost any rookie before him.

When Force India fell into financial distress in 2018, Stroll’s dad invested in the team, eventually buying it in 2020 and rebranding it, first to Racing Point and then to Aston Martin.

Aston Martin team boss Lawrence Stroll has bankrolled his son Lance’s career. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

There was never any doubt Stroll would be holding his seat when the Racing Point-Aston Martin transition happened, despite Sergio Perez proving himself as the better driver during the 2020 season. After all, the team’s executive chairman was never going to sack his son.

This is not to say Stroll isn’t a talented driver. He won the Formula 3 title the year before he entered F1 – though as mentioned, he had serious advantages. He earned a podium in his rookie season of 2017, and two more in 2020.

But has he ever been the most talented driver at his team? The results say no. Last year he finished 11th in the drivers’ championship, with teammate Perez fourth behind only Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and Max Verstappen. This year he is 13th, despite having much more experience in this specific car than new teammate Sebastian Vettel (12th), who struggled early in the season but has since recorded three top-five finishes (four if you exclude his Hungary disqualification for a fuel sample issue).

The 2021 season introduced another pay driver to the grid, in the form of Russia’s Nikita Mazepin.

Nikita Mazepin’s spot at Haas was certainly helped by his dad’s financial weight. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

Mazepin brought three things with him to Haas. A solid but not spectacular junior career; concerns over his off-track behaviour including a video of him inappropriately touching a woman and a physical assault of an F3 rival in 2016; and massive financial support.

It’s no coincidence that the previously black-and-red coloured Haas team now has the red, white and blue colours of the Russian flag. Their title sponsor, Uralkali, is a Russian chemical company that would seem to have no reason to advertise itself to the world… except Mazepin’s billionaire dad Dmitry is a majority shareholder.

Michael Schumacher in his prime would struggle to score a point in the 2021 Haas car, but Mazepin’s results have been particularly woeful, earning him the nickname ‘Mazespin’ for his seemingly-weekly issues on the track.

He has lost the qualifying battle to his teammate Mick Schumacher, a fellow rookie, in 16 of 19 races and finished out of the bottom four just once (14th in Azerbaijan, ahead of four retired cars, a heavily-penalised Nicholas Latifi and Lewis Hamilton because of his issues at a very late standing start).

Pay drivers date back years in F1, even decades. Pastor Maldonado, who somehow won a race in a bumbling five-season career, brought some $55 million-a-year in funding through Venezuelan oil company PDVSA.

Pastor Maldonado won the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix, though he’s arguably more famous for crashing into rivals throughout his career. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)Source: News Limited

There have even been success stories. Sergio Perez, now at Red Bull on merit, was something of a pay driver when he joined the grid in 2011 due to support from Mexican companies. Michael Schumacher had money to thank for his F1 debut, with Mercedes paying Jordan some $205,000 to run him at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1991, while the legendary Niki Lauda paid his way into the sport in the early 70s before winning three world titles.

F1’S NEWEST DRIVER BRINGS PLENTY OF CASH WITH HIM, TOO

Antonio Giovinazzi proved unable to hold his seat at Alfa Romeo for 2022, with Guanyu Zhou last night confirmed as China’s first full-time F1 driver.

Giovinazzi’s response summed it up: “@f1 is emotion, talent, cars, risk, speed. But when money rules it can be ruthless.”

While Alfa Romeo team principal Fred Vasseur denied Zhou has $48 million in backing behind him, it’s clear he has financial support to go along with his talent.

In his third Formula 2 season, Zhou is currently running second behind Australian rookie Oscar Piastri, improving on 7th (2019) and 6th (2020) placed finishes in the feeder series.

Both members of the Alpine Academy, Piastri was always an outside shot of getting the Alfa seat which is now Zhou’s. On 2021 performances alone, he deserves it, but he’ll spend 2022 as the Alpine reserve driver with hopes of replacing Fernando Alonso for 2023. It’s not perfect, but it’s not a robbery.

Guanyu Zhou (middle) and Oscar Piastri (right) are still fighting it out for the Formula 2 championship. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

Like Stroll and Mazepin before him, Zhou hasn’t simply bought himself a seat he doesn’t deserve – we’re talking degrees here. He has plenty of skill. The most skill of every junior racing option? Maybe not, but a combination of cash and competence is powerful.

But Zhou doesn’t just bring an immediate injection of cash; he opens up the Chinese market, which every organisation on the planet – sporting or otherwise – is always trying to crack.

Alfa Romeo doesn’t currently spend at the budget cap limit, but already several Chinese sponsors have made contact with the team. If Zhou turns out to be any good, that interest will continue to grow, not just for Alfa but for the entire grid and the sport itself.

Max Verstappen’s success has grown Dutch interest in the sport; Sergio Perez’ continued improvement helped the recent Mexican Grand Prix become a serious success. In quiet moments, F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali probably dreams of Zhou becoming a title contender, giving the sport another potential billion fans.

“I think for the company, for current sponsors work, for the nine other teams, for F1 in general, it’s a huge opportunity,” Alfa boss Vasseur told Motorsport.

“Huge. I think it’s really important that if you want to develop the team, but even for F1, the approach is the same. It makes sense to open a new market like China.

“And I think that Zhou will be the perfect ambassador for this, because he did very well in the junior series, much better than all the Chinese drivers before. However I know perfectly that it will be a challenge, because it’s always a challenge when you are joining F1.”

The nature of capitalism is to seek persistent growth, even if staying put is entirely healthy and can already be qualified as success. Zhou is part of that.

Guanyu Zhou has spent several years in F2 under the Renault and now Alpine banner. (Photo by AFP)Source: AFP

THE PAY DRIVER ISSUE ISN’T BLACK AND WHITE, THOUGH

However let’s make one thing clear; pay drivers being a ‘necessary evil’ doesn’t mean they’re purely a bad thing.

After all, it’s not just money that gets you into F1; like property, it’s location, location, location.

Even a driver like Lewis Hamilton, who had to overcome numerous disadvantages such as a lack of financial support and discrimination due to his race, at least had the benefit of being based in the UK.

The pathways to F1 are more defined in Europe than they are in continents like Asia and Africa. Even Australia, on the other side of the planet, is wealthy enough to send its promising karters to get opportunities in the European junior scene. It’s how Oscar Piastri even has a shot at F1.

Zhou becoming China’s first full-time F1 driver is about money, to an extent, but it’s also about geopolitics. He is a trailblazer; there simply being a Chinese F1 driver means it’s more likely more Chinese F1 drivers will exist in the future.

He had to find his own pathway, moving to the UK as a 13-year-old, because one doesn’t exist in China – or most other Asian countries, or in Africa. Money got him in the door, but it also created a door behind him.

The next Guanyu Zhou will get an opportunity because the first exists; and ideally, he’ll be able to hone his craft in China, rather than needing to move to Europe in the first place. Lowering the barrier for entry can only be positive – it allows talented would-be drivers to get a chance they otherwise would’ve never been able to take.

Is it healthy when a driver who already had opportunities at a junior level buys his way into an F1 seat, and the team dumps a talented but less well-supported option for him? Probably not. But that’s not exactly what is happening with Zhou, and the potential positives of the move – on a human level – must be acknowledged.

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F1 news, drivers’ championship, state of play, final race in Abu Dhabi preview, Lewis Hamilton vs Max Verstappen, standings

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It all comes down to this.

For just the second time in Formula 1 history, the top two drivers are level on points heading into the final race of the season.

And it was even less likely to happen in 2021 than it was in 1974, when Emerson Fittipaldi beat Clay Regazzoni to the title, because many more points are given out nowadays.

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When Fittipaldi won his second world title, he won with 55 points from Regazzoni’s 52. This time, Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton are tied on an extremely specific 369.5 points.

Verstappen has pole position thanks to his uber-consistent season, featuring nine wins, eight seconds, a ninth, five fastest laps and five points from the three qualifying sprints.

Hamilton has come charging home, with three consecutive wins to bring his season tally to eight, plus seven seconds, a third, a fourth, a fifth, a seventh, six fastest laps and two points from a qualifying sprint.

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Perhaps it won’t be decided on the final corner, like Hamilton over Massa in 2008 – though who knows? – but the most thrilling title race since at least that famous season will find a conclusion in Abu Dhabi this coming weekend.

Not that the drivers’ championship is the only crown to be given out, with the constructors’ crown not yet locked up, plus there are crucial battles in the midfield that must be decided.

Here’s the state of play for the Formula 1 season heading into the last race.

Radio confusion at Saudi Arabia GP! | 01:16

Current drivers’ standings (Top two teams)

1. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) – 369.5 pts

2. Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) – 369.5 pts

3. Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) – 218 pts

4. Sergio Perez (Mercedes) – 190 pts

THE TITLE FIGHT

In a sense, it’s very simple; whoever finishes ahead of the other in Abu Dhabi will claim the 2021 drivers’ championship*.

Lewis Hamilton will be feeling confident as his Mercedes has looked like the fastest car on the grid for several races, ever since they took repeated engine penalties to ensure they had extra power units in the pool.

Hamilton has won at Abu Dhabi more than any other driver, with five triumphs, though the last time the title race went down to the wire in the Middle East in 2016, he couldn’t seal the crown over teammate Nico Rosberg.

And Max Verstappen has been both quick and clever in recent races. He should’ve been on pole in Saudi Arabia, if not for a crash on the last corner in qualifying, having been three tenths up during the final sector.

Verstappen won last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, taking pole by .025 seconds from Valtteri Bottas and leading every lap, showing that the current Red Bull isn’t ill-suited to the track.

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For those worried about the race being a bit of a procession, as we’ve seen in recent years: keep in mind the Abu Dhabi circuit has been altered to help overtaking.

The sequence of 90-degree bends after the second back straight has been turned into a single banked turn, which the cars are expected to take at 240 km/h, while the chicane heading into the first back straight has also been removed.

Along with the opening up of several corners in the street circuit-like final sector, it’s hoped the track will be both faster and more exciting.

You’d still pick Hamilton to win the title if you had to name a winner, and he’s the slight favourite with bookmakers, but that assumes a pure clean race… and as we saw in Saudi Arabia, that’s no sure thing.

*Technically that’s not completely true – Hamilton could beat Verstappen while both finish outside of the points, meaning Verstappen wins on the tiebreaker; or if Hamilton finished ninth while Verstappen finished tenth with the fastest lap, they’d again tie.

Lewis beats Verstappen in dramatic race | 02:18

WHO HAS THE EDGE HEADING INTO ABU DHABI?

Verstappen has the natural advantage of leading in the standings.

What exactly do we mean by that? Well, the 1989, 1990, 1994 and 1997 crowns were all decided when the two leaders crashed out in the final race; if both the Dutchman and Brit crash out in Abu Dhabi, Verstappen will be champion.

“If it was to come to the scenario of the last race in Abu Dhabi and they were to be racing each other for the title, whoever is in front (on points) is absolutely going to try to do the same as in the Senna-Prost years,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said last month.

“What happened in Monza? Verstappen took Lewis out because he was about to overtake and he was quicker. And that is totally understandable.

“If you are racing for the championship and you see it fading away because the other guy is overtaking you, what tool have you got other than the one that makes sure he can’t overtake? We’ve seen it with Schumacher and Villeneuve, we saw it with Senna and Prost twice.

“I would never give the instruction to crash into anyone else but if they go to that last race and whoever is in front wins the championship, they will be racing each other, hard.

“And I don’t think you can control it, Hamilton and Verstappen, I don’t think you want to control it because they are the gladiators in their machines. That is what makes this sport so interesting, because it is ingrained in our nature that we don’t like confrontation and then one is intrigued to see how that relationship unfolds.

“If they crash are they going to confront each other? What are they going to say? Will they look in each others’ eyes? We would not interfere. The relationship is sorted out between the individuals.”

WHAT HAPPENS IF VERSTAPPEN AND HAMILTON TIE ON POINTS?

Verstappen will be crowned world champion, because he has won one more race (nine to eight); they cannot tie on points with Hamilton also winning the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

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Legend’s grandson caught in HORROR crash | 00:30

WHAT ABOUT THE CONSTRUCTORS’ TITLE?

Mercedes already had a handy lead in its bid to win an eighth consecutive constructors’ crown; and then Sergio Perez crashed out in Saudi Arabia.

The ex-Racing Point driver’s up-and-down season, compared to Valtteri Bottas’ steady year – including nine third-place finishes – has been the difference in the race between the Silver Arrows and Red Bull.

On 587.5 points, Mercedes is a full race win ahead of its nearest rival (559.5 points).

Realistically Red Bull needs a 1-2 finish in Abu Dhabi while one of Hamilton or Bottas crashes out to win the constructors’ title.

Current constructors’ standings

1. Mercedes – 587.5 pts

2. Red Bull – 559.5 pts

3. Ferrari – 307.5 pts

4. McLaren – 269 pts

5. Alpine – 149 pts

6. Alpha Tauri – 120 pts

7. Aston Martin – 77 pts

8. Williams – 23 pts

9. Alfa Romeo – 13 pts

10. Haas – 0 pts

WHO WILL BE BEST OF THE REST?

Daniel Ricciardo’s debut season in a McLaren hasn’t exactly gone to plan, with the Australian almost certain to finish eighth, well down on his fifth in 2020 – which he achieved in the fifth-best car on the grid.

He upgraded moving from Renault (now Alpine) to the British outfit but when the McLaren car was at its best, in the first half of the season, Ricciardo was still getting used to it.

He peaked with that stunning win at Monza, with teammate Lando Norris completing a stellar 1-2, but ironically ever since the Italian Grand Prix it’s been Ferrari as the third-best constructor.

Charles Leclerc (158 points), Norris (154 points) and Carlos Sainz (149.5 points) are scrapping it out for fifth place in the drivers’ standings; the Ferraris have both finished above Norris in each of the last five races.

The rest of the field, in both the drivers’ and constructors’ standings, is relatively spread out.

Current drivers’ standings (Midfield)

5. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) – 158 pts

6. Lando Norris (McLaren) – 154 pts

7. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) – 149.5 pts

8. Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) – 115 pts

9. Pierre Gasly (Alpha Tauri) – 100 pts

10. Fernando Alonso (Alpine) – 77 pts

11. Esteban Ocon (Alpine) – 72 pts

12. Sebastian Vettel (Aston Martin) – 43 pts

13. Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) – 34 pts

14. Yuki Tsunoda (Alpha Tauri) – 20 pts

Esteban Ocon nearly gave Alpine back-to-back podiums on Monday, but was pipped on the line by Bottas; however the hefty points on offer for fourth mean the Hungary race-winner is closing in on teammate Fernando Alonso for tenth.

The late surge by Ocon and Alonso has virtually sealed fifth place for Alpine, even though the Alpha Tauri when driven by Pierre Gasly has at times appeared the third-best car on the grid.

Unfortunately for the Red Bull junior side, Gasly’s brilliant qualifying hasn’t been matched on Sundays, with just one third-place (in Azerbaijan, when Verstappen, Hamilton and Bottas all missed the points).

His rookie teammate Yuki Tsunoda showed early promise with a ninth on debut in Bahrain, but has otherwise been well off the pace off the very impressive Gasly, with just five other points finishes this season and three retirements; only last-placer Nikita Mazepin has failed to finish more often.

Sebastian Vettel will actually beat his woeful 13th-placed finish from 2020 at Ferrari, as he’s almost certain to beat Lance Stroll at Aston Martin, with the peaks of a second-place in Azerbaijan and two fifths in Monaco and Belgium followed by way, way too many irrelevant back-of-the-midfield races.

If you’ll recall, at the start of the 2021 season there were aerodynamic changes which hurt ‘low rake’ cars like Mercedes and Aston Martin (given their car’s similarities to the Mercedes) the most. The former recovered; the latter hasn’t.

Of the last six full-time drivers in the standings, three will be elsewhere in 2022, all for different reasons.

Current drivers’ standings (At the back)

15. George Russell (Williams) – 16 pts

16. Kimi Raikkonen (Alfa Romeo) – 10 pts

17. Nicholas Latifi (Williams) – 7 pts

18. Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo) – 3 pts

19. Mick Schumacher (Haas) – 0 pts

20. Robert Kubica (Alfa Romeo fill-in) – 0 pts

21. Nikita Mazepin (Haas) – 0 pts

Hamilton and Verstappen collide! | 00:57

George Russell’s first F1 points, including that bizarre second at the aborted Belgian Grand Prix, will see him replacing Bottas at Mercedes with added confidence.

Alfa Romeo pair Kimi Raikkonen (retirement) and Antonio Giovinazzi (dumped to Formula E) surround Russell’s Williams teammate Nicholas Latifi, who’ll partner Alex Albon next season, in the standings.

Haas is set to match Williams (2020) and Marussia (2015) as the only teams in the last seven seasons to fail to score a point, with Mick Schumacher at least showing some promise.

Nikita Mazepin must finish 15th or better in Abu Dhabi to avoid finishing 21st and dead last, behind Robert Kubica who replaced Kimi Raikkonen for two races in the middle of the season.

The Russian was 14th in Azerbaijan – essentially by default, with four non-finishers, the heavily-penalised Nicholas Latifi and poor restarter Lewis Hamilton behind him – but otherwise hasn’t finished higher than 17th.

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Saudi Arabia Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen, championship race, leaderboard, crash, reaction

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Lewis Hamilton edged out Max Verstappen to win a chaotic and controversial Saudi Arabian Grand Prix that had the F1 world divided on Monday morning.

There were a number of flashpoints during the race that only intensified the ongoing tension between Hamilton and Verstappen, who are now level on points ahead of the decider.

Hamilton had sped away from pole position before the balance of power shifted after 10 laps when Mick Schumacher buried his Haas in a barrier.

Hamilton and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas pitted under the safety car but Verstappen stayed out.

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‘I didn’t understand what was going on’ | 01:27

Four laps later, the race was red-flagged to allow the barriers to be repaired which enabled Verstappen to pit, change tyres and resume the race in the lead.

On the restart, Hamilton reclaimed the lead but claimed he was forced off the track by Verstappen.

Moments later there was another red flag as Sergio Perez, George Russell and Nikita Mazepin all collided at the rear of the field.

The stewards decided that Verstappen’s manoeuvre was illegal and promoted Alpine’s Esteban Ocon to pole for the third start of the race, with Hamilton in second and Verstappen in third.

Amazingly, Verstappen then took the lead again with Hamilton following through.

However the drama and controversy continued when they collided late in the race. Hamilton said he had been brake-tested and Verstappen was penalised by the stewards before the Briton swept past and onto victory.

“It has been a dirty race in terms of tactics,” Martin Brundle said on Sky Sports F1.

“This is absolutely crazy. It’s kind of like we’re making it up as we go along.

“But it’s so many unusual situations. It’s more like an obstacle course than a race track.”

The F1 world was just as stunned by what unfolded on Monday, with the constant chaos proving hard to keep up with.

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Lewis Hamilton slams Max Verstappen, Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, reaction, quotes, result

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Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton lashed out at title rival Max Verstappen after Sunday’s gripping Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, describing the Dutchman as “over the limit”.

Mercedes driver Hamilton won a dramatic race under lights on the Jeddah street circuit but only after several close run-ins with Red Bull’s Verstappen.

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“I really had to try and keep my cool out there which was really difficult to do,” said Hamilton.

“I have raced a lot of drivers in my 28 years of racing, I have come across a lot of characters. There’s a few that are over the limit, the rules don’t apply.

“He (Verstappen)’s over the limit for sure. I have avoided collision on so many occasions with the guy.

“I don’t mind being the one who does that because you get to live another day. It doesn’t matter for him if we don’t finish. It does for me.”

‘Rules don’t apply’ – Lewis RIPS Max | 01:03

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The tense battle culminated in a late collision when Hamilton, apparently unaware that Verstappen had been ordered to give up the lead after an illegal manoeuvre shortly before, hit the Red Bull as it braked in front of him.

Red Bull maintained that Verstappen was simply following instructions while Mercedes intimated that the Dutchman was ‘brake-testing’.

“I don’t understand why he hit the brakes quite so heavily so I ran into the back of him,” said Hamilton.

“I didn’t get the information. It was very confusing.”

Did Lewis intentionally hit Verstappen? | 01:50

A visibly annoyed Verstappen, however, denied any wrong-doing in the incident. “I slowed down, I wanted to let him by, I was on the right but he didn’t want to overtake and we touched,” said Verstappen.

“I don’t really understand what happened there.” Stewards, who gave Verstappen a five-second penalty for an earlier incident, were investigating the decision.

“It was quite eventful! A lot of things happened, which I don’t fully agree with, but it is what it is,” said the 24-year-old Dutchman.

‘I didn’t understand what was going on’ | 01:27

He later stormed off the podium, refusing to take part in the traditional end of race champagne spraying with Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas who took third.

The two drivers are now level on points as they head to the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi next weekend, although Verstappen has the advantage of having won more races.

“It’s a straight fight as it has been all year,” said Red Bull principal Christian Horner.

“The form is with Mercedes but Max has fought like a lion this weekend, he has given it everything.”

Hamilton has now won three races on the bounce and is primed to become the first man to win eight world titles, one more than the record he currently shares with Michael Schumacher.

“I am personally chilled,” he said. “I feel like I am in the boxing ring and I am ready to go.”

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