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Max Verstappen vs Lewis Hamilton: How title fight swung and was ultimately won in an epic 2021 F1 season

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It was the championship tussle the Formula 1 world had long been waiting for – and it certainly did not disappoint.

Wheel-to-wheel racing, collisions, accusations, momentum swings, sensational overtaking…Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton’s 2021 championship tussle will go down as one of the greatest the sport has ever seen.

This is the race-by-race story of a thrilling season and controversial finish…

Bahrain: Hamilton’s triumph against the odds

Heading to the season-opener, it was paddock consensus that it was Red Bull – and not winners of the last seven titles, Mercedes – who had the better package. And that played out through much of the weekend, with Verstappen comfortably on pole and ahead in the race in the early stages.

But a combination of Mercedes strategy – undercutting Red Bull – and superb Hamilton management out in front led to an epic conclusion, with Verstappen charging up behind the seven-time champion in that faster car.

Sky F1's Karun Chandhok analyses the dramatic duel between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen in the closing stages of the Bahrain Grand Prix

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Sky F1’s Karun Chandhok analyses the dramatic duel between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen in the closing stages of the Bahrain Grand Prix

Sky F1’s Karun Chandhok analyses the dramatic duel between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen in the closing stages of the Bahrain Grand Prix

Hamilton held his nerve and, critically, Verstappen miscued his one overtaking opportunity late on by running wide in passing the Mercedes. He had to cede position afterwards, and wouldn’t get close again.

A thrilling wheel-to-wheel battle between F1’s two stars, who had rarely gone head-to-head before, represented the perfect start to the season – and it was a sensational one for Hamilton, given his win against the odds.

POINTS: HAMILTON 25-18 VERSTAPPEN

Imola: Verstappen wins, Hamilton’s lucky break

The Emilia Romagna GP delivered more F1 drama, with Mercedes right back in the fight with Red Bull – but it was Verstappen who triumphed on Sunday to kickstart his season, as a rare Hamilton error ruined his chances.

Verstappen actually started down in third in damp conditions but quickly passed team-mate Sergio Perez and the pole-sitting Hamilton into the first corner – where the two title protagonists touched wheels. Hamilton was just beginning to fight back when he spun off into the gravel, and it looked like his race was very much over.

Hamilton slides off into the gravel at Imola while running second and hits the barrier - but manages to reverse and continue with his race

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Hamilton slides off into the gravel at Imola while running second and hits the barrier – but manages to reverse and continue with his race

Hamilton slides off into the gravel at Imola while running second and hits the barrier – but manages to reverse and continue with his race

But not only did Hamilton make it out, but an opportune Safety Car allowed him to come back out in ninth, and he made light work of recovering to take second behind Verstappen.

POINTS: HAMILTON 44-43 VERSTAPPEN

Portugal: Lewis overtakes Max en route to domination

Three races, three wheel-to-wheel battles between Hamilton and Verstappen. But it was Mercedes who had the upper hand in Portimao. Hamilton did drop down to third in the early stages behind Valtteri Bottas and Verstappen, but overtook the off-guard Red Bull driver and then his team-mate on his way to a dominant victory.

The solace for Verstappen was that he managed to get past Bottas despite Mercedes’ pace advantage, limiting the world champions’ early lead.

POINTS: HAMILTON 69-61 VERSTAPPEN

Spain: Merc masterstroke as Hamilton takes charge

Mercedes once again had the edge on Red Bull at one of their strongholds, but it was Verstappen who led for much of the race after a superb lunge on a far-from-aggressive Hamilton into the first corner.

Hamilton gets past his championship rival Verstappen to take the lead with six laps to go in the Spanish GP

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Hamilton gets past his championship rival Verstappen to take the lead with six laps to go in the Spanish GP

Hamilton gets past his championship rival Verstappen to take the lead with six laps to go in the Spanish GP

Hamilton, however, was hunting his prey from then on and an overtake appeared a matter of time – before Mercedes pulled the trigger and fitted him with fresh tyres. The move dropped him more than 20 seconds behind Verstappen, but with a 2s-per-lap pace advantage, a pass was inevitable and Hamilton executed it with typical ease.

After a close start to the season, Hamilton and Mercedes were starting to look rather ominous…

POINTS: HAMILTON 94-80 VERSTAPPEN

Monaco: Verstappen takes first title lead, Hamilton suffers

The famous Monte Carlo streets provide as unique a test as it comes in F1, one that Red Bull have typically relished and one that Mercedes, even in their dominant years, have not always passed with flying colours. But few would have predicted such contrasting weekends for Verstappen and Hamilton.

Hamilton struggled with his setup from Thursday right through to Sunday in Monaco, qualifying way down in seventh and then, stuck behind Pierre Gasly and even overcut by Sebastian Vettel, finished in that position.

Hamilton vented his frustration over team radio as the seven-time world champion finished seventh in Monaco

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Hamilton vented his frustration over team radio as the seven-time world champion finished seventh in Monaco

Hamilton vented his frustration over team radio as the seven-time world champion finished seventh in Monaco

Verstappen, meanwhile, inherited pole from Charles Leclerc due to his car damage and then comfortably delivered his first victory in the Principality – one that gave him his first-ever championship lead.

POINTS: HAMILTON 101-105 VERSTAPPEN

Baku: Hamilton fails to capitalise on rival’s puncture

The Azerbaijan GP always seems to throw up some chaos, even when you least expect it…

Everything was pointing towards a Verstappen victory as he led a Red Bull one-two – with Hamilton not able to match Max or Perez in the race – with few laps remaining. But a dramatic and cruel tyre puncture both ended the title leader’s race completely, and gave Hamilton the perfect chance to claw back some points.

Hamilton locked up at Turn One in Baku and ran off the track during the restart

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Hamilton locked up at Turn One in Baku and ran off the track during the restart

Hamilton locked up at Turn One in Baku and ran off the track during the restart

Then came more drama. Hamilton started second for the race restart and looked set to pass Perez into Turn One, when he inadvertently switched a brake switch on his Mercedes steering wheel and missed the corner completely. That dropped him out of the points, leaving Perez to win.

POINTS: HAMILTON 101-105 VERSTAPPEN

France: Verstappen revenge with late pass on Hamilton

After the street races of Monaco and Baku, many expected the more ‘normal’ French track at Paul Ricard to lead Mercedes to return to the form they had shown in Portugal and Spain. But Red Bull appeared to take a step forward with minor upgrades – and it was Verstappen who beat the Mercedes to pole.

An uncharacteristic mistake at the start of the race allowed Hamilton back through, but Red Bull and Verstappen pulled off a mighty undercut to get back ahead, and then pitted from the lead just 14 laps later – committing to a somewhat risky strategy given Hamilton and Bottas now had track position.

With less than two laps to go at Paul Ricard, Verstappen passed Hamilton for the race lead

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With less than two laps to go at Paul Ricard, Verstappen passed Hamilton for the race lead

With less than two laps to go at Paul Ricard, Verstappen passed Hamilton for the race lead

But it turned out to be a masterstroke, with Verstappen storming through Bottas and then closing up to Hamilton, overtaking the Mercedes, who didn’t put up much of a fight, on the penultimate lap to extend his title advantage.

POINTS: HAMILTON 119-131 VERSTAPPEN

Styria: Home comforts for Verstappen as run continues

One of the themes of the France weekend was Red Bull – able to run less downforce than Mercedes – appearing to have a big straight-line speed advantage. That was a recipe for success at their home and high-speed Red Bull Ring circuit in Spielberg, and Verstappen made the most of it with a dominant lights-to-flag win from pole.

The only consolation for Hamilton was that he finished second, although it was now clear that Red Bull were on the charge.

POINTS: HAMILTON 138-156 VERSTAPPEN

Austria: Perfection for Verstappen, dejection for Hamilton

The second Austria race resulted in more of the same for Verstappen – who was perhaps even more dominant as he added the fastest lap bonus point to his collection from the previous weekend – while Hamilton hit problems.

After overtaking the McLaren of Lando Norris, Hamilton looked likely to ease to second place again, but picked up unexpected floor damage over the heavy kerbs and quickly started losing time to cars behind.

Lando Norris gets himself back up to third in Austria after overtaking Hamilton

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Lando Norris gets himself back up to third in Austria after overtaking Hamilton

Lando Norris gets himself back up to third in Austria after overtaking Hamilton

He was passed by Bottas, and then by Norris, and had to settle for fourth place. While only a six-point difference between second and fourth, Verstappen’s title lead was now the equivalent of more than a race victory…

POINTS: HAMILTON 150-182 VERSTAPPEN

Britain: Hamilton and Verstappen crash for first time

This was the race where the title battle truly ignited.

After Verstappen won the first-ever Sprint at Silverstone, extending his lead to 33 points, on the Saturday Hamilton knew he could ill-afford to drop further behind his rival in the main Grand Prix. A thrilling wheel-to-wheel duel ensued over the race’s opening half a lap before the rivals came to Copse.

Max Verstappen hit the barriers after colliding with Lewis Hamilton during the first lap of the British GP, resulting in a red flag

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Max Verstappen hit the barriers after colliding with Lewis Hamilton during the first lap of the British GP, resulting in a red flag

Max Verstappen hit the barriers after colliding with Lewis Hamilton during the first lap of the British GP, resulting in a red flag

With Hamilton trying to overtake down the inside, but Verstappen holding his line on the outside, the type of collision that many long thought inevitable had finally happened. While the Mercedes was able to continue, Verstappen flew off the circuit at high-speed into the barriers at around 180mph, and was later taken to hospital for precautionary checks.

After the post red-flag race restart, Hamilton fought back from a 10-second time penalty to overtake Ferrari’s Leclerc on lap 50 of 52 as he secured a record-extending eighth win in front of his home fans, suddenly reducing Verstappen’s lead to just eight points.

POINTS: HAMILTON 177-185 VERSTAPPEN

Hungary: Hamilton regains title lead after chaotic race

Hamilton looked in charge when he maintained his lead from pole at the start of the race, but his Mercedes team-mate Bottas caused a multi-car turn-one incident, involving Verstappen, in damp starting conditions, triggering all manner of carnage.

That brought out the red flag and Hamilton found himself all alone on the grid for the restart as he continued on his intermediate tyres, while the rest of the drivers pitted behind him for dry tyres.

Watch the restart to the Hungarian Grand Prix as all cars but Lewis Hamilton pitted to change their tyres

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Watch the restart to the Hungarian Grand Prix as all cars but Lewis Hamilton pitted to change their tyres

Watch the restart to the Hungarian Grand Prix as all cars but Lewis Hamilton pitted to change their tyres

The decision dropped him to the back of the field, although the Mercedes driver staged a superb recovery drive to finish second behind Alpine’s Esteban Ocon, who won for the first time in F1

Verstappen, meanwhile, could only muster ninth as his afternoon was wrecked by the collision with Bottas, meaning Hamilton held an eight-point advantage heading into the summer break.

POINTS: HAMILTON 195-187 VERSTAPPEN

Belgium: Farcical win for Verstappen

Torrential and never-ending rain ruined what had looked set to be another fascinating tussle between the two title protagonists. The Belgian GP had to be red-flagged after just two laps behind the Safety Car – and almost four hours after the original start time – due to continuous rainfall and poor conditions at Spa.

After two laps behind the safety car, Max Verstappen is confirmed as the winner of the Belgian Grand Prix, with heavy rain having prevented any competitive racing

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After two laps behind the safety car, Max Verstappen is confirmed as the winner of the Belgian Grand Prix, with heavy rain having prevented any competitive racing

After two laps behind the safety car, Max Verstappen is confirmed as the winner of the Belgian Grand Prix, with heavy rain having prevented any competitive racing

With no actual racing taking place, the results of qualifying effectively decided the Sunday result too. With half points awarded, pole-sitter Verstappen claimed 12.5 points while Hamilton’s third place gave him 7.5 points meaning the Brit’s championship advantage was cut to only three points.

POINTS: HAMILTON 202.5-199.5 VERSTAPPEN

Netherlands: Verstappen delights home crowd

The home fans were desperate to see their hero Verstappen triumph at the first Dutch GP since 1985. And he didn’t disappoint, emerging victorious from pole ahead of Hamilton, much to the delight of the vocal and colourful local support in the orange-clad grandstands.

The Dutch fans celebrate as Max Verstappen wins his first-ever home Grand Prix to re-take the championship lead

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The Dutch fans celebrate as Max Verstappen wins his first-ever home Grand Prix to re-take the championship lead

The Dutch fans celebrate as Max Verstappen wins his first-ever home Grand Prix to re-take the championship lead

Hamilton’s three-point lead before the race was turned into a three-point deficit.

POINTS: HAMILTON 221.5-224.5 VERSTAPPEN

Italy: Hamilton and Verstappen crash again!

Another Sprint weekend and another crash between the two in Sunday’s race as tensions threatened to boil over at Monza.

Starting from pole, Verstappen appeared well-set to stretch his championship lead over Hamilton, but he lost the lead to the fast-starting Daniel Ricciardo.

After both suffering slow pit stops, Hamilton and Verstappen’s races ended in the gravel at the first chicane after a frightening clash on lap 26 as the Red Bull attempted to overtake the Mercedes. Verstappen was this time found at fault and handed a three-place grid drop for Russia.

Max Verstappen moved alongside Lewis Hamilton after his pit stop and the pair collide at the first chicane, causing both to be beached in the gravel!

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Max Verstappen moved alongside Lewis Hamilton after his pit stop and the pair collide at the first chicane, causing both to be beached in the gravel!

Max Verstappen moved alongside Lewis Hamilton after his pit stop and the pair collide at the first chicane, causing both to be beached in the gravel!

Ricciardo went on to win from team-mate Lando Norris as McLaren secured their first one-two finish since the 2010 Canadian Grand Prix.

POINTS: HAMILTON 221.5-226.5 VERSTAPPEN

Russia: Hamilton registers landmark 100th win

The weather once again came to the fore to provide wonderful entertainment at the Russian GP in Sochi.

Verstappen looked in danger of losing significant points prior to the race as he was required to start from the back of the grid after Red Bull installed a fourth engine of the season in his car.

Norris, meanwhile, was heading towards his maiden F1 win, but as rain started falling with just eight laps to go, he opted to remain on his slick tyres, while Hamilton changed for intermediates.

It's heartbreak for Lando Norris as the McLaren driver loses the lead to Lewis Hamilton in the final stages of the Russian Grand Prix

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It’s heartbreak for Lando Norris as the McLaren driver loses the lead to Lewis Hamilton in the final stages of the Russian Grand Prix

It’s heartbreak for Lando Norris as the McLaren driver loses the lead to Lewis Hamilton in the final stages of the Russian Grand Prix

The decision proved catastrophic for Norris as he spun his McLaren into the barriers on lap 51 of 53, with the Mercedes driver capitalising to register an incredible 100th win in F1.

Verstappen, who was seventh before the rain came down, was arguably the big winner though as he changed tyres earlier than many others and finished second.

POINTS: HAMILTON 246.5-244.5 VERSTAPPEN

Turkey: Bottas holds off Verstappen to help Hamilton

This race proved to be about damage limitation for Hamilton, who had qualified quickest, as he was hit with a 10-place grid penalty for having a new engine fitted to his car.

Bottas came to the rescue for his Mercedes team-mate though, producing his best drive of the season at Istanbul Park to win ahead of Red Bull’s Verstappen and Perez.

Lewis Hamilton shares his frustrations over team radio after losing places by changes tyres towards the end of the Turkish GP

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Lewis Hamilton shares his frustrations over team radio after losing places by changes tyres towards the end of the Turkish GP

Lewis Hamilton shares his frustrations over team radio after losing places by changes tyres towards the end of the Turkish GP

Hamilton, who was running third after starting 11th, was furious after a late pit-stop with only eight laps remaining saw his comeback drive halted as he finished fifth, with Verstappen retaking the championship lead.

POINTS: HAMILTON 256.5-262.5 VERSTAPPEN

USA: Twist in title race as Verstappen triumphs

Hamilton and Mercedes were expected to dominate in the United States, with the Briton having won a record six times before in Austin.

However, Verstappen turned the form book on its head once again, holding off a late charge from his title rival to claim a vital victory.

Max Verstappen managed to hold off Lewis Hamilton to take the chequered flag in Austin and extend his championship lead to 12 points with five races to go

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Max Verstappen managed to hold off Lewis Hamilton to take the chequered flag in Austin and extend his championship lead to 12 points with five races to go

Max Verstappen managed to hold off Lewis Hamilton to take the chequered flag in Austin and extend his championship lead to 12 points with five races to go

Despite losing the lead at the first corner, the Red Bull driver pitted first at the opening stops to gain track position and he’d withstand the pressure of a charging Mercedes on fresher tyres to secure his first win in the USA.

That saw the Dutchman increase his world championship lead to 12 points with five races to go.

POINTS: HAMILTON 275.5-287.5 VERSTAPPEN

Mexico: Verstappen dominates, ominous for Hamilton

Despite Mercedes having dominated during the hybrid era, Mexico City has proved to be a happy hunting ground for Red Bull in recent years and so it proved again.

Not that Hamilton looked set to reverse recent momentum, having sprung an upset to take pole.

Relive how Red Bull's Max Verstappen took the lead of the Mexico City GP, with Valtteri Bottas sent spinning back from pole

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Relive how Red Bull’s Max Verstappen took the lead of the Mexico City GP, with Valtteri Bottas sent spinning back from pole

Relive how Red Bull’s Max Verstappen took the lead of the Mexico City GP, with Valtteri Bottas sent spinning back from pole

But Verstappen, starting third, slipstreamed past the Mercedes front row of Hamilton and Bottas at the start, and the 24-year-old never looked like relinquishing that lead as he won by 16.5 seconds for a record third triumph in Mexico and his ninth race victory of the season.

Hamilton now trailed Verstappen by 19 points after doing enough to hold off Perez for second.

POINTS: HAMILTON 293.5-312.5 VERSTAPPEN

Sao Paulo: Hamilton in one of F1’s greatest wins

Hamilton’s title hopes looked to be evaporating as he was disqualified from qualifying for a rear wing infringement, meaning he started the Sprint from the back of the grid instead of the head of the field. The Brit somehow recovered to finish fifth but a five-place grid penalty for an engine change meant he’d start Sunday’s event back in 10th.

However, the seven-time world champion doesn’t know when he’s beaten and he delivered one of the comeback drives of his career to triumph.

The stewards investigated this incident between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton as the Red Bull driver defended his lead

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The stewards investigated this incident between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton as the Red Bull driver defended his lead

The stewards investigated this incident between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton as the Red Bull driver defended his lead

The title rivals went head to head for much of the race and Verstappen angered Hamilton with a questionable defence into Turn 4 on lap 48. That would controversy would run to the next race in Qatar.

The Mercedes driver made the decisive overtake 11 laps later though, reducing Verstappen’s lead to 14 points as the paddock headed to the Middle East for the final three races of the season.

POINTS: HAMILTON 318.5-332.5 VERSTAPPEN

Qatar: Hamilton claims successive victories

The Qatar GP was a case of damage limitation for Verstappen after he was given a five-place grid penalty for a yellow-flags infringement in qualifying.

Hamilton converted his dominant pole into a runaway and crucial win to strengthen his hopes of winning a record eighth world title.

Lewis Hamilton wins in Qatar and Max Verstappen's title lead is down to eight points!

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Lewis Hamilton wins in Qatar and Max Verstappen’s title lead is down to eight points!

Lewis Hamilton wins in Qatar and Max Verstappen’s title lead is down to eight points!

Verstappen recovered to finish second on F1’s first start at the Losail Circuit and Alpine’s Fernando Alonso took his first podium for seven years.

It meant Verstappen’s lead was cut to eight points with just two races to go.

POINTS: HAMILTON 343.5-351.5 VERSTAPPEN

Saudi Arabia: Hamilton prevails in all-time classic

In one of F1’s greatest-ever races, Hamilton and Verstappen collided again in one of numerous incidents between the pair at the inaugural Saudi Arabian GP.

Max Verstappen was told to let Lewis Hamilton past, before Hamilton ran into the back of him!

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Max Verstappen was told to let Lewis Hamilton past, before Hamilton ran into the back of him!

Max Verstappen was told to let Lewis Hamilton past, before Hamilton ran into the back of him!

Hamilton was in complete control when Mick Schumacher crashed into the barriers on lap 10, with the Brit pitting under the subsequent safety car. Schumacher’s incident brought out the red flag though and Verstappen, who led the restart having stayed on track, pushed Hamilton wide after his title rival got off the line quickest.

However, Perez, Nikita Mazepin and George Russell all crashed out, bringing out another red flag. Pushed back to third for this restart, Verstappen leapfrogged Hamilton and Esteban Ocon as he reclaimed the lead, setting up an epic tussle between the two title protagonists.

Hamilton was forced to take evasive action after being run wide on lap 37 and Verstappen was told to hand over first place, but as the Dutchman slowed the Mercedes hit him up the back. Verstappen was later penalised for the incident.

Hamilton eventually did get ahead and, with Verstappen second again, it meant both drivers entered the season-decider in Abu Dhabi level on 369.5 points. Incredible.

POINTS: HAMILTON 369.5-369.5 VERSTAPPEN

Abu Dhabi: Verstappen grabs title on last lap after Safety Car controversy

The build-up to the season finale had been dominated by talk that such a relentlessly competitive championship might be decided by a moment of controversy. It ultimately was, but not in the manner expected.

With title contenders tied on points for a final race showdown for the first time since 1974, Verstappen took a brilliant pole yet it was Hamilton who was ahead by the race’s first turn and, one moment of wheel-to-wheel drama later around the opening lap aside, the Mercedes driver appeared to be firmly on course for the win that would see him become F1’s first eight-time champion.

Experience the incredible conclusion of the Abu Dhabi GP from on-board Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton's cars and listen to the team radios, including Hamilton saying the race had been 'manipulated'

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Experience the incredible conclusion of the Abu Dhabi GP from on-board Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton’s cars and listen to the team radios, including Hamilton saying the race had been ‘manipulated’

Experience the incredible conclusion of the Abu Dhabi GP from on-board Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton’s cars and listen to the team radios, including Hamilton saying the race had been ‘manipulated’

But then came the lap 53 Safety Car and the final-lap shootout for the title. With Mercedes livid about the manner in which the end of the Safety Car period had ended, with only the lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen allowed to unlap themselves and the race then restarted at the end of that very same tour, the Red Bull on fresh tyres overtook Hamilton into Turn Five and it was Verstappen, aged 24, who was world champion for the first time.

POINTS: HAMILTON 387.5-395.5 VERSTAPPEN



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