Sunday’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix involved as much ingenious maneuvering of fast cars as it did crashing of said cars, avoidance of hunks of carbon-fiber debris, and legalistic interpretation of Formula 1 rules. Perhaps no image of the actual racing on a tight, tricky track in Jeddah evokes the tension of this transfixing race as fully as Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff sending his headset to hell. Let no one ever claim that motorsports don’t showcase traditional athleticism.
Wolff, who showed his headset sweet mercy earlier this season in Baku, got this red and mad because of the stakes of this race. Heading into Saudi Arabia, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen narrowly led Mercedes’s Lewis Hamilton, 351.5 to 343.5, in pursuit of the World Drivers’ Championship. At time of headset death, the archrivals had collided under confusing circumstances. Verstappen, leading the race on lap 37, made a dubious maneuver on the first turn, braking late and veering off the track, which forced Hamilton to abort his attempt at overtaking. Because drivers are not supposed to gain an advantage by straying from the track, race authorities told Red Bull that Verstappen had to cede his position to Hamilton. That order was passed along to Verstappen, who timed his concession for a strategic part of the lap, around turn 26, as both cars approached a DRS zone on the track—an area where cars can reduce their drag and overtaking becomes much easier. This would’ve given Verstappen the best possible chance to quickly retake the position. He didn’t get a chance to figure out if his ploy would work, because once he slowed up, the cars made contact.
Hamilton, who said he hadn’t yet been informed by Mercedes that Verstappen was going to let him through, didn’t overtake his rival in the space briefly afforded him on the inside of the turn. Confused by the loss of speed, he braked abruptly and clipped the back of the Red Bull car. So in that moment, Wolff had just seen sparks fly off his Mercedes and possibly assumed their pursuit of the Drivers’ Championship was in peril.
Instead, even with a damaged front wing, Hamilton dominated the rest of the race, snagging the race’s fastest lap as his car lightened up on fuel. He opened up a healthy lead over Verstappen, whose chance at P1 was doomed for a few reasons: His medium tires wore down towards the end, and he received a five-second penalty during the race for going off-track, plus an additional 10-second penalty for the above collision. The drivers’ 1-2 finish means they both will arrive at the final race of the season with 369.5 points. (Verstappen remains ahead since the tiebreaker is race wins; he has nine to Hamilton’s eight.)
It all comes down to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The dudes in collared shirts will be as heated as the dudes in helmets. Thoughts and prayers go out to all the telecom technology in the paddocks.