Max Verstappen has revealed he suffered from cramp in his right leg in the dying stages of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in December, but overcame it to seal his maiden Formula 1 world championship.
The Dutchman and title rival Sir Lewis Hamilton entered the final round of the 2021 season level on points after an astonishing year of racing, and the Red Bull man began the race on pole position.
However, Hamilton passed him off the start and, despite a late braking effort from the 24-year-old into Turn 6, was able to break away and led comfortably heading into the closing laps of the race.
However, a late Safety Car caused by a Nicholas Latifi crash allowed Verstappen to pit and, following a highly controversial restart by race director Michael Masi, was able to traverse the seven-time world champion on the final tour of the race and take his first-ever F1 title.
Asked about his thoughts before his now infamous move into Turn 5 on lap 58, they were simple – he needed to win.
“What was going on in my head? I was like ‘I need to overtake him, there’s only one option here, I’m not going to finish second,’” he told The Guardian newspaper.
He then recalled the severely painful cramp he experienced in his leg, but says he simply “had to” carry on fighting.
“I tried to be really on it with the restart. It was all working well until I crossed the line and started to feel cramp in my leg,” he explained.
“It’s one of the most painful things that can happen because you’re going full throttle for a long time. You feel the muscle clenching and becoming like a tennis ball.
“Of course the adrenalin helps because if it were to happen when you’re just walking around, you cannot move. It’s impossible. But there was no option, I had to.
“So I was just keeping it full throttle and I could feel my leg hurting more and more. Luckily, Turn Five arrived and I went for the [overtaking] move. I had like three seconds off throttle.
“You then have two very long straights and on the second one, where Lewis came back at me, I could feel my foot vibrating. I couldn’t control it because the muscle was having a spasm. My foot on the last sector was like this…” he said, shaking his foot to emphasise the discomfort he was in.
“If you go back over the data you will not see a very smooth throttle input. I was screaming on the radio (after he had won) but the whole lap my foot was going like that.
“It was completely done. One more lap and I couldn’t have finished the race like that. The stress levels were so high in the final lap that probably your body reacts to that. But you cannot give up.
“I knew I had more grip so I was like ‘I’ll surprise them on that corner’. Even my dad didn’t expect me to do it there. These kind of things make the difference. But two long straights were coming up.”
The Dutchman elucidated the range of emotions he was going through during the race, and the undulating pattern will not have been too distinct to a thrilling 2021 season as a whole.
“I couldn’t believe it, especially after the whole race when everything looked like it was not happening. Suddenly your emotions swing 100 per cent the other way. So crazy,” he affirmed.
“It’s what we had worked for my whole life. It was always my dream. Once you cross the line, you realise you finally have it. I jumped out of the car and all the mechanics and my dad were running towards me.”
Verstappen will race with the number one on his car this year, and will again partner Sergio Perez at the Milton Keynes outfit.
Hamilton is to be joined at Mercedes by George Russell, with the Briton signing from Williams to replace the departing Valtteri Bottas.