(Reuters) -The potentially title-deciding Saudi Arabian Formula One Grand Prix was stopped twice in the first 16 laps on Sunday before Red Bull’s championship frontrunner Max Verstappen took the lead with title rival Lewis Hamilton close behind.
The red flags came out on lap 15 after a five-lap safety car period triggered by Mick Schumacher crashing his Haas into the barriers on Jeddah’s super-fast and unforgiving Corniche street circuit.
That first stoppage appeared to play into the hands of Verstappen, who had stayed out while seven-times champion Hamilton pitted for fresh tyres from first after starting on pole position.
“Why is it a red flag?” Hamilton asked over the team radio. “The tyre wall looks fine… It’s unbelievable, man.”
With cars returning to the pits, Verstappen’s Red Bull team were able to change his tyres without the need for a further stop during the race.
That advantage disappeared, however, when the re-run standing start also brought out more red flags and Verstappen fell foul of the stewards.
Hamilton made the better getaway but Verstappen went off track to keep the lead, with Alpine’s Esteban Ocon forcing his way past Hamilton into second place.
“I had to avoid a collision there,” exclaimed Hamilton. “He cut across the whole kerb. He just overtook me outside the white line.”
The race was halted when Haas’s Russian rookie Nikita Mazepin and Williams’ George Russell collided at the start while Verstappen’s team mate Sergio Perez spun and was hit by Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc.
Debris was strewn across the track, bordered by concrete walls and little in the way of runoff.
In an extraordinary sequence of radio exchanges, race director Michael Masi then offered Red Bull the “opportunity” to line up on the grid for the third standing start behind Hamilton, with Ocon in the lead.
“You’d be back behind Lewis,” said the Australian. “That is my offer.”
“We accept that,” came the reply from Red Bull’s team manager Jonathan Wheatley.
Verstappen then seized the lead.
The Dutch driver leads Hamilton by eight points with only one race remaining after Sunday. The youngster will be champion if he scores 18 points more than the Briton.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Clare Fallon and Christian Radnedge)