Lewis Hamilton clinched his fourth drivers’ world championship in unexpected fashion on Sunday when, after a first-lap collision with title rival Sebastian Vettel, he finished ninth in the Mexico Grand Prix.
The 32-year-old, who needed to finish in the top five to take the title if Vettel won, battled from last position in his Mercedes after suffering a puncture as Max Verstappen won the race for Red Bull.
Vettel, already a four-time champion, came home fourth for Ferrari after driving through the field from 19th following his crash with Hamilton. He also pitted for a new front wing.
Hamilton’s title triumph made him the first Briton to be a four-time champion, elevating him clear of Jackie Stewart, and alongside Vettel and Alain Prost on four.
Only Michael Schumacher with seven titles and Juan-Manuel Fangio on five have claimed more championships than the Englishman.
But after five wins in the previous six races, it was a disappointing way for Hamilton – who said he wanted to win the title in style – to take the crown.
Verstappen won the race in convincing style ahead of Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate, Valtteri Bottas, and Kimi Raikkonen of Ferrari.
“I’d like to say a big thanks to everybody in this team,” said Hamilton. “What you’ve done the past couple of years is incredible. I’m so grateful.
“It’s not the race you want when you are 40 seconds down, but I never gave up.
“This is what is important and in my heart, I am so grateful for today. And this crowd, here in Mexico, is just amazing. The fans here are the best in the world.”
Vettel finished fourth ahead of Esteban Ocon of Force India, Williams rookie Lance Stroll on his 19th birthday, and local hero Sergio Perez in the second Force India.
Kevin Magnussen finished eighth for Haas ahead of Hamilton and two-time champion Fernando Alonso, who battled hard to resist Hamilton before finishing 10th for McLaren Honda.
Verstappen’s victory was his second this season and the third of his career, coming just a week after he was deprived of a podium finish by being demoted from third place at the United States Grand Prix.
“The start was crucial,” Verstappen said. “I went round the outside and from then on I was looking after the car and tyres.
“After last week, it is a perfect race for me.”
The race was run in near-perfect conditions at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, with an air temperature of 21 degrees Celsius and the track at 24, Vettel making a decent start from his 50th pole position.
But with a long 890m straight run to Turn 1, both Verstappen and Hamilton made attacks, the Dutchman fighting his way round the outside to snatch the lead.
Hamilton followed him and as he passed Vettel, the pair collided, the German’s Ferrari running into Hamilton’s rear-right wheel and causing a puncture amid a flurry of flying debris.
Both had to limp back to the pits where Vettel took a new front wing and Hamilton, slower to complete the lap, took a new set of tyres.
They rejoined in 19th and 20th places, with the Englishman a long distance from the field ahead.
“Simply, simply lovely,” said a delighted Verstappen on his Red Bull team radio as he pulled out a comfortable advantage ahead of Bottas.
“Did he hit me deliberately?” asked Hamilton. “Not sure, Lewis,” came the reply.
As a result of that collision, Hamilton’s hopes of taking the title with a win were severely deflated, but not those of being champion – Vettel needing to win, or finish second, to keep his challenge alive.
The opening drama overshadowed what followed as Australian Daniel Ricciardo, on lap six, retired his Red Bull with a suspected turbo failure – a concern for the team as they studied Verstappen’s progress at the front.
Hulkenberg was next to suffer from Renault’s engine problems at the high-altitude track – at 1,250 metres – when he was ordered to climb carefully out of his car after stopping at the side of the main straight.
“The car is not safe, Nico. The car is not safe. You need to climb out by jumping off the front,” Renault told him, indicating electrical problems.
By this stage, a somewhat disheartened Hamilton was struggling to pass cars. “Is anyone else making through?” he asked. Vettel was the answer.
After 34 of the 71 laps, Brendon Hartley became the third Renault-powered man to retire amid a cloud of smoke from his Toro Rosso car.
This meant a spell of running under a Virtual Safety Car (VSC) that saw Hamilton and Vettel pitting again, the Briton for super-softs and the German, in an aggressive move, taking ultra-softs.
The leaders also pitted and when the VSC period ended, Verstappen led Bottas by 7.5, extending it to 8.8 with a record lap on lap 37. Raikkonen was third ahead of Ocon.
At this stage, Vettel was up to seventh and Hamilton 14th.
Remarkably, for Hamilton, he was lapped for the first time since the 2013 Spanish Grand Prix before he and Vettel passed their way through the field to set up a tense closing period.
Knowing Vettel was unlikely to climb to second, Hamilton realised he would be champion, but he fought hard to score points and took ninth place with a battling pass of Alonso in the closing laps.