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Questionable calls at Abu Dhabi Grand Prix do little to stifle the celebrations of Verstappen’s orange army

By Eoin McSweeney, CNN

The mood among an army of orange clad fans in the north grandstand is sombre. With four laps to go, seven-time Formula One World Champion Lewis Hamilton is cruising to another victory, leaving a frustrated Max Verstappen in his wake.

Red Bull principal Christian Horner is heard muttering on the radio that his team “need a miracle,” and there are audible groans.

But then Williams driver Nicholas Latifi’s car crashes into a barrier and the images flash up on the big screen. A safety car is deployed and the overwhelmingly Dutch crowd holds its breath in anticipation. If the race restarts, Verstappen will be on fresher tires and driving right behind Hamilton, despite the Brit having established a healthy lead.

Suddenly, there is hope, and so the miracle comes to pass with one lap to go.

With the extra grip, Verstappen passes Hamilton in front of the jubilant partisan crowd at the newly redesigned turn five. He accelerates into the long back straight, for now, drowning out the cheers with the noise of his engine — but they will last long after the cars stop circling the track.

The controversial decision to allow a last-lap duel sparks fury in the Mercedes camp. Team principal Toto Wolff’s nostrils flare as he shouts down his mic, and George Russell, who will be driving a Mercedes car next year, tweeted in capital type that what has just happened is “unacceptable.”

The victors of the constructor’s championship launch protests that will continue long into the night, casting doubt over Verstappen’s triumph. A frenzied following begins dissecting the final moments of the race on social media, where former world champion Damon Hill criticizes the race director for having a “guess what I’m going to do now” strategy. Four-time Olympic champion Michael Johnson says he’s “done watching F1.”

Even English soccer captain Harry Kane weighs in on Twitter, saying the rules are “bizarre” and “unfair.”

He describes the ending as a “shame”, but it certainly doesn’t bother the ecstatic Dutch fans, who are already popping champagne bottles in the stands and soaking anyone nearby with alcohol.

“This is unbelievable, what an achievement for such a small country,” 27-year-old Olivier Luttmer tells CNN Sport, tears streaming down his face. “The world is watching this race in Abu Dhabi and the Orange Army are here to watch it too.”

He chokes up and is bear hugged by his father, who had playfully scolded him earlier in the day for not wearing an orange shirt. As he’s being dragged away to rejoin the celebrations and watch the Dutch national anthem being played, he roars back: “We are going to make a party!”

Yas Marina is painted orange

Abu Dhabi hotels are likely to be strewn with tired Verstappen fans Monday morning. By now, the hangover will have kicked in, but the joy of the night before remains.

Going into the final race of the 2021 championship, this season had been heralded as one of the greatest in the sport’s history. The two titanic rivals arrived at the Yas Marina Circuit level on points, setting up the perfect end to a title race which always had the potential to come down to the final moments.

The Dutchman took the early advantage by qualifying in pole position after a magical qualifying lap on Saturday, a drive that will be remembered for quite some time.

And so on Sunday, the Orange Army descended on the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix early in the day, bringing with them noise, color and confidence. They throng the F1 merchandise stands, hoping to pick up a Red Bull polo shirt and anyone who isn’t is proudly wearing orange.

Every man, woman and child in the beer gardens surrounding the concourse were confident that 24-year-old Verstappen would take home his first F1 World Championship crown.

“Yeah, Max is going to win,” said 56-year-old Kees Saton, a seasoned veteran of F1 fandom. “It means a lot, the first winner from such a small country. I remember in Barcelona, his first race win, and he has gone from strength to strength.”

“I have to catch my plane tomorrow at eight, so let’s see if I make it,” he added while guzzling Heineken with a group of orange-clad friends. A party mood has already descended on the track, and cheers rise from across the stands when fighter jets pass by, painting the sky the colors of the Emirati flag.

But it was Hamilton who started the race better from second, overtaking Verstappen before the first corner and dominating the majority of the Grand Prix with the Mercedes pace.

There was controversy, as there has been throughout the season, with Red Bull adamant that Hamilton should have given his first place back to Verstappen after the Mercedes man went off the track following contact with his rival.

Stewards, however, decided not to investigate the incident and allowed Hamilton to proceed in first.

Hamilton continued to build a lead throughout the 58-lap race, until it became apparent Verstappen would not catch him before the finish. At that point, fans like Olivier Luttmer and his father were despondent, gingerly sipping their drinks and wondering how it could have all gone so wrong.

Just minutes later though, his face was wet with tears of joy.

“Nobody had expected something like this,” he sobbed.

Verstappen is an ‘inspiration’

Verstappen’s popularity extends beyond the beer gardens of Yas Marina Circiut, of course. Dutch soccer player and Liverpool star Virgil Van Dijk tagged Verstappen in a tweet with the caption: “WHAT A BOSS.” Indian cricketers Sachin Tendulkar and Rohit Sharma both took the time out to congratulate the new F1 champion, sending tweets out to their millions of followers.

To a new generation of fans, his victory will serve as an example of what can be achieved with relentless effort and a splash of talent.

It’s 16-year-old Ralph Swinkels first Grand Prix, and he told CNN Sport in the beer garden outside the grandstand that Verstappen is “an inspiration.”

“When he comes by on the track, the cheering and all that is so big. And everyone in the Netherlands is watching,” he said, his father Peter adding that he’s proud to bring his son to watch a Dutchman perform like this on the world stage. The two are sure that Verstappen will take home the championship.

They spot CNN just after the race and after exchanging fist bumps, say: “We told you so!”

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