A last-lap title decider is something we've been craving for a little while now in Formula 1. Alas, so long as the Lewis Hamilton-Mercedes juggernaut keeps on chugging without missing a beat, it's unlikely we're going to get one.

The season finale in Abu Dhabi was a damp squib at the front. Even with some late switches to two-stop strategies, Valtteri Bottas ran out of time to complete a back-of-grid to podium charge, while Sebastian Vettel had easily disposed of Alexander Albon in the fight for fifth a few laps before the finish.

But in the race to take sixth in the championship, a brilliant fight played out that did go down to the very last lap of the season.

And it was Carlos Sainz who emerged as the ‘Formula 1.5’ champion for 2019.

The domination of the top three teams is such that any driver outside Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull can’t really hope for much more than seventh in the championship. The mid-season swap at Red Bull meant this became a battle for sixth which, after the dramatic end to the race in Brazil, was on a knife-edge heading to Abu Dhabi.

McLaren’s Sainz has been the man leading the midfield for much of the season, regularly beating the cars around him, but was tied on points with Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly going into the weekend. Alexander Albon, holding the fastest car of the trio at Red Bull, was a further 11 points back.

Sainz remained cautious in the build-up to the weekend, stressing that Toro Rosso’s recent gains made Gasly a real threat. McLaren had P4 in the constructors’ championship in the bag, but it was facing late-season pressure from Toro Rosso, Renault and Racing Point for outright pace, with the midfield fight rarely offering a breakaway leader this year.

Sainz qualified ninth, just two-hundredths of a second shy of McLaren teammate Lando Norris, but two places further back as Daniel Ricciardo split the pair for Renault. Gasly would be starting 11th, but with a free choice of starting tyre, meaning he could run the preferred Medium-Hard strategy.

Sainz started well to pass Ricciardo before moving up to fifth when Norris pitted, before coming in himself on Lap 12 to cover off Ricciardo on the undercut. Ricciardo got ahead initially before Sainz pulled an important move to reclaim the place – albeit now trailing Norris, who had come in earlier.

The lack of DRS through the opening stages of the race due to a technical issue hurt Sainz. “We couldn’t go through traffic,” Sainz said. “It just compromised our whole race. The whole race behind Lando, behind Renault with the dirty air, it was very difficult to manage the tyres.”

The Renault in question was Nico Hulkenberg, who had managed to overcut both Sainz and Ricciardo with a brilliant first stint that even saw him lead a train including Bottas, Vettel and Albon, the trio hamstrung without DRS. Hulkenberg snaked out of the pits in the thick of the fight to lead the midfield, slotting between Norris and Sainz.

Sainz was now a net P9, accounting for Bottas’s recovery, but was already struggling. Even with Gasly out of the points, the Spaniard knew that he was facing a losing battle.

“I made sure I was aware of [the fight for sixth],” he said. “I knew. I could follow on the TV also. I knew Gasly was pretty much out of the race. When I was behind Nico in the first stint or second stint, I knew Perez and Kvyat were on the fastest strategy. It gave them a massive advantage on the strategy.”

Sergio Perez and Daniil Kvyat were both able to complete long first stints, coming in on Laps 37 and 40 respectively. Perez took a set of Hards to the finish, while Kvyat moved from Hards to Mediums. Both were ready to carve through the midfield and grab some points.

The writing was on the wall for Sainz, and he knew it. Perez emerged just four seconds behind on-track, with Kvyat a further five behind once he had come in. If he dropped to 11th, then sixth in the championship would be Gasly’s on countback, by virtue of his second-place finish in Brazil.

"I said our only chance is by getting Nico at the end and pitting for a Medium,” Sainz said post-race, having given the call to McLaren before coming in on Lap 41. It gave him 14 laps to make up the pit stop deficit to Hulkenberg, as well as passing the other cars he lost places to.

Sainz quickly lit up the timesheets, pulling moves on Kevin Magnussen and Kimi Raikkonen that meant by the time both Perez and Kvyat had passed Hulkenberg, the Renault was within sight – 10 seconds to make up in 10 laps.

The tyre advantage ran close to two seconds per lap, but naturally diminished as Sainz neared in dirty air. The gaps ran at 3.9 seconds, 2.3 seconds, 1.2 seconds, 1.2 seconds, 0.9 seconds – and then came the final lap.

“I got close enough to Nico to throw a move into Turn 9, and decided to back out of it and try it in 11, but I didn’t get the run out of 10 that I wanted, so it meant I arrived too late and a bit far behind,” Sainz explained.

“I saw a gap on the inside, but it was really small, a bit like with Perez, so I said ‘OK, if it worked with Perez, I need to try to make it work with Nico’.

“I threw the move and made it stick. It’s crazy, at the end of the championship, we were fighting on the last lap, in the last overtaking opportunity of the track - I made it stick.”

The strategy gamble had paid off. Sainz came home P10, grabbing the point that confirmed him in sixth place in the standings, one clear of Gasly and four ahead of Albon in P6.

“You should have seen the garage!” said Sainz’s PR, proud of her driver for his achievement.

But the mechanics and crew had made do with Sainz’s onboard camera to see the fight, as they wouldn’t have seen it on the world feed. With the focus on the leaders, Sainz’s move was missed. “No way!” he said when informed. “It was the most exciting final lap I think I’ve got, it was like a world championship for me!

“Everyone has been talking about this P6 midfield battle for the whole weekend, and then the fight was down to the last lap and one of the last corners, and still they don’t show it on TV. It’s obviously strange that everyone hypes this P6 battle, and in the end, no-one shows it on TV.”

Regardless, even that could not sap Sainz’s energy for a remarkable achievement. P6 in a championship where, realistically, he should only have been seventh at best.

“I think in modern Formula 1, to beat two guys that were in a much faster car for 10 races each, and still manage to get nearly 100 points and P6 in the championship, it’s something that before the year I couldn’t even think about,” Sainz said.

“Coming into this weekend, I knew it was going to be tough, but I had a small chance, and we made it stick when it counted. So I’m happy about that.

“I had a bit of a world championship approach, trying to put myself under pressure for that, thinking this might be one day me fighting for a world championship, and it worked well.”

It takes nerves of steel to pull off the strategy and final overtake that Sainz did on Sunday. It’ll put him in good stead for the future.

 

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