Motor racing history beckons and threatens for Lewis Hamilton at this weekend’s floodlit season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The defending seven-time champion could be dethroned by a pugnacious young pretender, who may be his nemesis, or set for a magnificent record with an eighth title when he competes with Max Verstappen at a much-modified Yas Marina Circuit.
After 21 closely-fought races from Bahrain to Jeddah, via classic vigorous contests at Monaco, Silverstone, Monza and Interlagos, the duelling duo will arrive at their final inter-generational showdown level on points.
Each man knows he is within reach of fulfilling a dream at the conclusion of a dramatic and sometimes belligerent season that has been a Box Office sensation for Formula One and the sport’s global television ratings.
After last Sunday’s extraordinary drama-laden spectacle in Saudi Arabia, this winner-takes-all show will surely grab the attention of a rapt world audience as the warring Mercedes and Red Bull teams fight their final acrimonious battle to decide both the drivers’ and constructors’ titles.
After travelling 1850 kilometres across the Arabian Peninsula, from Jeddah, the Formula One circus will be united by one hope – that the season ends fairly on the track without rancour or any need for a stewards’ inquiry.
To take his unprecedented eight title, one more than the record seven he shares with Michael Schumacher, Briton Hamilton, 36, must finish the race and score more points than Verstappen.
The Dutchman, 24, will take the title if he outscores Hamilton or if both fail to score or finish – a scenario that has provoked conspiracy theories and memories of ugly unsporting collisions that tarnished past great rivalries.
The infamous clashes between Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna in 1988 and 1989, in Japan, and those involving Schumacher, with Damon Hill in Adelaide in 1994, and with Jacques Villeneuve in 1997, produced the darkest stains.
Schumacher’s deliberate crash with Villeneuve at Jerez in Spain saw his season’s work expunged from the records and the championship that year when he was sanctioned and punished for his actions.
It is the first time since 1974 that two drivers have reached the final race on level points, Emerson Fittipaldi taking the title ahead of Clay Regazzoni, and only the second since the world championship began in 1950.
“It will be intense,” said Mercedes team chief Toto Wolff. “But it is important not to be distracted – to keep our heads down, our feet on the ground and bring the performance we had last weekend.
“We are grateful still to be in this fight and the fact that both championships will be decided proves just how hard both sides have been challenging and pushing each other forward. It’s all or nothing and that’s amazing for the sport, the fans and for all of us too.
“We’re also relishing the challenges of racing at a circuit that has gone through quite a few changes. There are new sections of track to understand and it really is a step into the unknown for everyone. It’s going to be another exciting weekend…”
Verstappen has won nine races to Hamilton’s eight, an advantage that will decide the outcome if both men fail to finish – or crash again, as they have twice already, excluding minor skirmishes, this year. But Verstappen could also take the title if Hamilton suffers a mechanical or other retirement during the race.
Given his aggressive style and abrasive self-belief, Verstappen has been cast by many as a Schumacher-esque competitor prepared to do anything to win, but his Red Bull team chief Christian Horner has defended his occasional petulant behaviour and stressed they will race fairly.
“He’s a hard, but fair racer and I expect no different this weekend,” said Horner. “Nobody wants to win this championship in a gravel trap or in a stewards’ inquiry….”
Given that his father Jos was Schumacher’s team-mate at Benetton for ten races in 1994, some observers have sensed a similarly single-minded approach in Verstappen as he bids to end an era as the German did.
On recent form, following his three resurgent victories, Hamilton has the momentum, but Verstappen won easily last year in Abu Dhabi and has enough vim to believe he can do it again albeit on a circuit where Hamilton has won five times since 2011.
The track, however, has been modified heavily to encourage speed and overtaking and may suit the champion, with his ‘spicy’ new Mercedes engine, better than the sleek Red Bull.
On a weekend of farewells – to Honda as engine suppliers for Red Bull and to Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 champion who starts his record 249th Grand Prix – there is only one certainty: the tension and drama will be in plentiful supply before a champion can be crowned.