ABU DHABI -- It's almost beyond belief. After 21 races, Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton head to the final round of the Formula One championship level on points.
It's a remarkable situation that has only happened once before in F1's history and it promises to provide a spectacular showdown as the two best drivers in the world go head to head in a winner-takes-all race at Sunday's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. But as exciting as that sounds, there are genuine concerns that this incredible season will be decided with a collision -- or worse still in the stewards' office.
Most of those concerns stem from last weekend's semi-farcical Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, in which positions between the two title rivals changed more off track than on track (both literally beyond the white lines of the circuit at Turn 1 and as a result of race control telling Verstappen to give positions back).
It became clear during that race that Verstappen and Hamilton have very different views on the rules of racing, and that has the potential to create unprecedented controversy in Abu Dhabi if the title is decided by a collision.
Hamilton and Verstappen have made on-track contact on a number of occasions this year, but the roots of the current confusion only stretches back to last month's Brazilian Grand Prix. On lap 48 of that race, Hamilton attempted to go around the outside of Verstappen only for Verstappen to leave his braking so late that both drivers had no choice but to drive off the track. The incident was noted by race control but the stewards decided against investigating it, meaning it was deemed legal but the stewards did not give any reasoning as to why.
At the very least it could be argued that Verstappen gained an advantage by going off track, and arguably he broke a second rule by failing to leave Hamilton racing room. After the race, Mercedes called for the stewards to review the incident when new camera footage from Verstappen's car became available, but the same set of stewards opted against launching a post-race investigation, and so no explanation for their decision not to penalise Verstappen was forthcoming.
It was perhaps no surprise, then, that the next time Verstappen and Hamilton were fighting for position on track -- at last weekend's Saudi Arabian Grand Prix -- Verstappen pulled two very similar moves. Both occurred at Turn 1, once on lap 15 at a red flag restart when Verstappen had briefly lost the lead to Hamilton and threw his car across the inside of Turn 2 to regain the lead, and again on lap 37 as Hamilton attempted to pass around the outside and Verstappen forced both drivers off the track by taking too much speed into Turn 1 to successfully make the corner. On both occasions, Hamilton had to take avoiding action to prevent a collision.
In the first instance, there was the unusual situation of a second red flag occurring immediately after, meaning the FIA could ensure Verstappen gave the position back by moving him behind Hamilton on the grid at the restart that followed. It seemed like an awkward exchange over the radio waves at the time, but it was in line with many previous examples of race control telling drivers to give back positions after cutting a corner to gain an advantage -- it's just that this time it occurred under a red flag ahead of a standing restart.
Verstappen was also asked to give a position back after the incident on lap 37, but then things got really messy as Hamilton hit the rear of Verstappen's car as the Red Bull slowed to let him through. The stewards later determined that Verstappen hit the brakes unnecessarily hard in front of Hamilton and was predominantly to blame for the collision, resulting in a ten-second penalty -- although that is a separate issue to the one discussed here.
Immediately after the collision on lap 37, Verstappen drove away from Hamilton without giving the position back, meaning he was then issued with a five-second penalty for the original Turn 1 incident as he was judged to have "left the track and gained an advantage". Verstappen was not happy about that decision after the race and, with a certain logic to his argument, compared it to Brazil where he had also left the track and gained an advantage and not received a penalty.
"I find it interesting that I am the one who gets the penalty when both of us ran outside of the white lines," Verstappen said after the race. "In Brazil, it was fine and now suddenly I get a penalty for it.
"You could clearly see both didn't make the corner, but it's fine. I mean I also don't really [want to] spend too much time on it. We have to move forward.
"I said it earlier on my in-lap [over team radio], I think lately we're talking more about white lines and penalties than actually proper Formula One racing and that's, I think, a little bit of a shame."
So here we have a driver who has taken the lack of a decision from Brazil and used it as a precedent to drive another car off the track in Saudi Arabia. Of course, Verstappen was also the driver in those incidents who had less to lose by virtue of his lead in the drivers' championship and therefore could risk a collision in order to retain that lead, but in his mind it seems it was the fact he wasn't penalised in Brazil that allowed him to take that risk.
As a result of the incident in Brazil, the drivers were briefed on the rules of racing on the Friday of the Qatar Grand Prix. It is understood the FIA was wary of saying the Brazil incident was against the rules as it would have opened up more questions about that decision, so it instead made clear that the stewards will treat each incident on its own merits, meaning that just because the facts of an incident at one circuit saw a driver force another off the track does not mean that every incident where a driver forces another off the track will go unpunished.
To be fair to FIA race director Michael Masi, he has consistently said that no two incidents are the same and every corner on the F1 calendar is different, resulting in different circumstances when two drivers go wheel to wheel. But while it's true that the positioning of the cars and their speeds relative to one another are never going to match up from one incident to another, the stewards' job of making a judgement is much harder when there are no solid precedents to build on.
What's more, the stewards are far more likely to find themselves needing to make judgements on incidents when the two drivers fighting for the title -- in this case Hamilton and Verstappen -- have very different interpretations of the rules and will therefore drive in very different manners.
Hamilton, who has been driving in Formula One for 15 years and has seven world titles to his name, said on Sunday that Verstappen is the only driver in F1 who is racing to a different set of rules.
"I don't think I've changed the way that I race," he said. "I think we're seeing multiple incidents this year where even with Brazil we're supposed to do our racing on track in between the white lines and the rules haven't been clear from the stewards, that those things have been allowed, so that's continued.
"From my understanding, I know that I can't overtake someone and go off track and then keep the position but I think that's well known between all us drivers. But it doesn't apply to one of us, I guess."
However, Red Bull team boss Christian Horner believes too much focus has been on his driver when Hamilton has also pushed the limits this year. One such example was when he finally got past Verstappen on lap 44 in Saudi Arabia and ran the Red Bull wide into the run-off area to ensure he could not get back past on the following straight. That incident was noted by race control, with Masi saying it was "borderline" for a black and white warning flag.
"I would ask you to look at Lewis' incident at the final corner where he pushed Max off in the same way," Horner said on Sunday evening. "Any driver that has come through karting or that has raced in any category that is hard racing, that's how these kids have raced throughout their careers. Lewis gives just as he gets.
"He's very wily with the way he does it sometimes. Look at the last corner when he ran Max out there. There was another corner as well where he opened the steering wheel, I think it was into Turns 1 and 2.
"These are two guys that are fighting over such fine margins right pushing to the boundary. If you don't want them to have the ability to run wide, put a gravel trap out there."
Horners opposite number, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff, hopes the incidents in Saudi Arabia have cleared up some of the grey areas heading into the final round in Abu Dhabi but admits that the rules are still vague.
"I said after Brazil that we're setting a precedent if it's not being investigated that could end up being really ugly for the championship, and you've seen [in Saudi Arabia] they were pretty much the same incidents as Brazil at slower speeds," he said. "We don't want to have that in Abu Dhabi. The quicker car with the quicker driver should win the championship and not by taking each other off.
"What is my confidence [in that]? I can't tell you as I hope today's race [in Saudi Arabia] has enough repercussions that everyone's going to learn from it and adapt for the final race in Abu Dhabi.
"I think that similar driving, if it were deemed by the stewards as over the line, would be penalised as well in Abu Dhabi and that could well end in a messy situation for everybody and I don't think the championship has deserved a result which was influence by a collision.
"So I very much in that case trust in the self-regulating system."
Horner shared those sentiments when asked if Red Bull cared how Verstappen won the title.
"Yes, of course we do," the Red Bull boss said. "You want to win it on the track, not in the stewards' room, not in the gravel trap.
"It's been a tough fight all through the year. There's been some fantastic racing between these two drivers and I hope that it's a fair and clean race in Abu Dhabi."
Although the drivers are level on points ahead of the final race, Verstappen would win the title on countback of race victories if both drivers fail to finish. While no one is expecting him to take advantage of that factor by driving Hamilton off the road on purpose, it does mean he can continue to be aggressive in wheel-to-wheel exchanges knowing that Hamilton cannot afford an accident that takes both drivers out.
Ultimately no-one wants to see the title decided by a collision or a stewards' decision, and the best way to prevent that is for Masi to sit both drivers down ahead of the race and make it crystal what will be tolerated and what will be penalised.