By Abhishek Takle
ABU DHABI (Reuters) – Formula One champion Max Verstappen heads into Sunday’s season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix facing questions about his character and behaviour after he refused to help team mate Sergio Perez at the last race in Brazil.
The Red Bull rift could bring fresh drama to Yas Marina, the circuit where last year Verstappen won his first title and denied Lewis Hamilton a record eighth in a massively controversial clash.
Verstappen has little at stake this time, having wrapped up his second title in Japan last month, but can expect a grilling from the world’s media after leaving his motives a mystery at Interlagos.
Perez acidly accused Verstappen of showing “who he really is” in refusing to hand back a place as requested by Red Bull who want the Mexican to end the season second overall.
The new champion constructors have never finished one-two in the drivers’ standings and Perez is now level on points with Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc but behind on race wins.
Verstappen’s assertion that he and Perez had talked and moved on, and that he was willing to help the Mexican in Abu Dhabi, is unlikely to draw a line under the matter.
There is widespread bafflement at why a driver who has dominated the season refused to hand back a sixth place of no consequence to him, and why he was so obviously angry at the request.
If, as some have suggested, it was payback for Perez’s qualifying crash at Monaco in May, then why had it taken so long to manifest? And why was Verstappen still so vexed about it given all the positives since then?
The controversy will not distract Verstappen from chasing a record-extending 15th win of the season but the task is getting harder, with Mercedes and Ferrari filling the top four places in Brazil.
Sunday’s race will also be the last opportunity for Lewis Hamilton to claim a first victory of the year with Mercedes and avoid the first season without a win of his career.
Mercedes team mate George Russell led him home in a Mercedes one-two in Brazil and a repeat result with fastest lap would help the former champions overtake Ferrari for second in the constructors’, with just 19 points separating the two teams.
Fourth place overall, equivalent to millions in prize money, is also in contention.
Alpine, 19 points clear of McLaren, look set to be best of the rest spot after the Woking-based team suffered a double retirement in Brazil.
Sebastian Vettel will bow out on Sunday, at the same venue where he clinched his first title in 2010, in what is sure to be an emotional swansong for the four-times champion.
“I am sure that this race will bring back plenty of happy memories from the last 15 years,” said the 35-year-old. “I want to go out on a high.”
Canadian Nicholas Latifi and Australian Daniel Ricciardo will also be absent next year losing their seats at Williams and McLaren respectively, while it may also be a farewell to Mick Schumacher.
The German could join them on the sidelines with Haas widely tipped to announce Nico Hulkenberg alongside Kevin Magnussen for next season.
(Reporting by Abhishek Takle; editing by Christian Radnedge)
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