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Either Lewis Hamilton or Max Verstappen will win the World Drivers’ Championship next weekend in Abu Dhabi. But will the motorsports community regard the man who prevails as a legitimate Formula 1 champion?

Verstappen has behaved abysmally under the strain of seeing Hamilton cut into his lead and then fashion a tie by winning in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Hamilton has engaged in some gamesmanship in pursuit of his record eighth championship. It’s a side of him we hadn’t seen before, and it isn’t a flattering look.

The two men most responsible for thriving interest in F1 are also responsible for what is shaping up as an unsatisfactory conclusion.

Lewis Hamilton is not blameless, but Max Verstappen is the bigger F1 villain

Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes GP and Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing talk in the press conference after qualifying for the Formula 1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at Jeddah Corniche Circuit. | Florent Gooden - Pool/Getty Images
Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes GP and Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing talk in the press conference after qualifying for the Formula 1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at Jeddah Corniche Circuit. | Florent Gooden – Pool/Getty Images

The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix made its Formula 1 debut last weekend in a carnival-like atmosphere around the track and a circus-like atmosphere on it. The competition featured wrecks, two standing restarts, preposterous negotiations by the race director, and a late-race ruling that all but ended Max Verstappen’s chance at victory.

Chaos ruled the day. Lewis Hamilton benefitted most. The new 6.174-kilometer track was a close second since the day’s controversies distracted from the fact that the circuit is arguably unfit for Formula 1.

The first key incident came at the standing restart on lap 15. Race director Michael Masi negotiated with Verstappen’s team to drop him to third based on the way he had previously cut the turn 1 corner. It mattered little since the Red Bull Racing star then executed a brilliant move on turn 1 to pass Hamilton and leader Esteban Ocon. Minutes earlier, Verstappen complained to his team about Hamilton’s penchant for arriving slowly on the grid after the formation lap, a move intended to cool the tires of the Red Bull car.

Verstappen maintained the lead through the middle third of the race but was never able to shake Hamilton, who momentarily sling-shotted past on lap 37. However, they came up immediately on turn 1 again, where Verstappen cut the corner once more.

That brought about the order for Verstappen to surrender the lead. The Dutch star brake-checked Hamilton, leading to the four-time defending series champion crashing his Mercedes car into the back of the Red Bull car.

All that was missing by that point was the parade of elephants and 26 clowns emerging from a Volkswagen Beetle.

Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton might do it all over again in Abu Dhabi

Figure on an almost immediate problem roughly seven seconds into the first lap on the Yas Marina racecourse in Abu Dhabi on Sunday: Assuming that Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen start near each other, they’ll approach a 90-degree left turn at speeds in excess of 160 mph while looking to get there first and exit first. The first turn has become perpetually problematic this season since neither driver gives an inch.

Such stubbornness could take one or both cars out of the race and be game, set, and match. Whichever driver finishes higher in the top 10 wins the World Drivers’ Championship. If neither finishes in the top 10, seemingly impossible unless both crash out of the race, then Verstappen wins the tiebreaker since he owns more victories.

The second-worst thing that could happen to Formula 1 is for one or both of the drivers to fail to complete the race. It would result in endless “what-if” questions, particularly if one driver is the cause of the other’s misfortune.

The worst scenario, however, is that there are more shenanigans involving the two, resulting in the stewards having to hand down five- or 10-second penalties during the race. Five or 10 seconds may not sound like much over the course of 58 laps, but it’s often greater than the margin of victory.

And then there’s this: With the entire motorsports world watching the climax to the season, will the stewards actually act if they see something egregious, or will they swallow their proverbial whistle because they don’t want to affect the outcome? Of course, that would affect the outcome anyway.

What Formula 1 fans will be watching for next weekend in Abu Dhabi

Every moment in Abu Dhabi, beginning with the first practice and concluding with the checkered flag, will come under scrutiny. Red Bull and Mercedes have been sniping at each other over cheating, real or perceived, from the moment it became apparent that Max Verstappen had what it takes to deprive Lewis Hamilton of his fifth straight Formula 1 title and eight overall.

Obviously, their every move bears watching. But what about their teammates? Sergio Perez at Red Bull and Valtteri Bottas of Mercedes have been running near the front of the field all season. Conspiracy theorists will have a field day if either tangles with one of the star drivers. But they could create nearly as much havoc by acting as rolling roadblocks or through some sort of incident that brings out the safety car, thereby bunching up the field.

Even an uneventful race won’t erase memories of the multiple incidents between drivers and the sparring by top executives. The last thing Formula 1 needs is for one more controversy in the season-ending race.

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