The 20 human beings that are afforded the most exclusive privilege in motorsport – to compete for the Formula 1 world championship – are almost entirely unparalleled in their transcendent abilities behind a steering wheel.
For ‘drivers’ is a misnomer – what these athletes truly are, at their core, are ‘racers’.
Through years of karting, honed by hundreds of races in junior formulae and complemented by hours in simulators either at the factory or at home, a champion is forged through their racecraft. It is their ability to keep composed under the most impossible of pressure. It is in applying an iron will to succeed, molded by unshakable self belief. It is in making millions of decisions throughout a two hour race – and have none of them be the wrong one.
The 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will always stand out in the annals of the sport’s history. Regretfully, to an unfortunate extent, not for the most deserving of reasons.
But cast aside the controversy over race control and put appeals and protests out of mind, because what those thousands at the track and many millions watching witnessed, beyond a new world champion crowned, was a demonstration of phenomenal racing prowess from all of the key protagonists.
A race – and title – almost lost at the start
As the only two racers who had ever held any realistic chance of competing for the championship in 2021, Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton had regularly represented two deeply contrasting philosophies on-track throughout the 6,103 kilometres of racing completed through the season before the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Ahead of their ultimate encounter around the Yas Marina circuit, the final qualifying session of 2021 ensured that they would be taking a differing approach to the most important race of the season – and arguably, of both their careers.
Verstappen had secured pole position, but at the cost of using the soft tyres in the second session of Saturday’s qualifying hour. An uncharacteristic lock-up into turn one earlier in Q2 had flat-spotted his medium tyres. That raised rival Hamilton’s suspicions – was this a Red Bull ruse, intended to disguise their preference for the softer rubber?
Unintentional or otherwise, Verstappen was now likely locked into an early first pit stop for the opening phase of the race, whereas Hamilton had more freedom to extend at his leisure. Not that Verstappen was bothered. “I felt good [on Friday] on the long run on the softs,” Verstappen said. “So it was not a difficult decision to make to say ‘okay, we will focus on the softs.’”
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Unlike most sporting pursuits, motorsport is unusual in how the start of a contest can often prove its most critical point. With Verstappen on the less-durable compound compared to Hamilton, he was not only under pressure to hold onto the lead on the short sprint down to the first corner to maintain the crucial track position he needed to make the best of his strategy, he had the benefit of grippier tyres off the line to do so.
But his practice starts had not gone well. And as Verstappen lined up on the prime grid slot for the tenth and final time in his most successful ever season, waiting for the rest of the field to join him, he knew that of the hundreds of competitive standing starts he had experienced in his racing career, this was the most important of all. When the five red lights extinguished, however, he almost instantly realised he had been bested.
On the short run to turn one the Mercedes’ rear wing was beyond the Red Bull’s front wing before they had even reached the braking zone for the first corner. Hamilton could afford to take an easy line through the left-hander as the Mercedes garage roared their approval, just metres away.
Behind, Lando Norris’s third place – won through a remarkable qualifying performance the day before – was taken by Sergio Perez in the second Red Bull. At least Verstappen would have the luxury of his team mate covering his six. That could not be said for Hamilton, however, as his wingman, Valtteri Bottas, only helped to further justify his team’s decision to replace him with younger blood following that weekend when he surrendered sixth to Charles Leclerc, then seventh to Yuki Tsunoda’s AlphaTauri.
Verstappen had spent too many races over his many years at Red Bull watching Hamilton disappear into the horizon to be under any illusion of how urgently he needed to reclaim the early advantage. The remodelled Yas Marina offered better opportunities to do so. Verstappen took a deeper entry into the widened turn five compared to Hamilton, priming himself for a strong exit along the protracted back straight.
With no DRS to assist him, Verstappen had to rely on the the superior purchase of his tyres, the punch of his Honda power unit and the slipstream generated by the Mercedes to pull him near. He was not close enough to pass. Not even in the realm of where one should consider trying a pass. But this was for a world championship and this was the moment to call on every measure of his late-braking ability not to fail him now.
Verstappen flung his car to the inside, hammering down the gears and only just flirting with the apex before running outrageously deep into the corner. But as the world held its breath, Hamilton was forced to make space for the charging Red Bull. Unlike so many instances this season, however, Verstappen kept to the confines of the turn while Hamilton tweaked his steering wheel to the right, choosing to bail out to the safety of the copious run-off before opting out of turn seven entirely.
“He has to give that back!,” Verstappen promptly ordered over team radio. But with race control satisfied that Hamilton had relinquished enough of the advantage he gained, it was up to the Red Bull driver to reclaim the position himself.
Such a task is challenging enough at the best of times in Formula 1, but especially so when it is a seven-time world champion who must be overcome. With clear air in front of him, Hamilton quickly settled into a rhythm, lapping in the mid 1’28s while his adversary behind tried to match him without burning through his softer tyres in the dirty air.
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Perez’s best defence is Red Bull’s best offence
It was not long before Verstappen began to feel the strain from the rubber underneath him. “Rears are starting to struggle a little bit,” he reported to engineer Gianpiero Lambiase as his lap times crept up into the higher 1’28s. Sensing an opportunity to build his advantage, Hamilton began lighting the timing screens purple as his margin to Verstappen grew wider with it.
With Bottas mixed up in the pack and not a factor for Red Bull to contend with, an inviting gap was opening up between third placed Perez and Carlos Sainz Jnr in fourth. It would not be enough for Verstappen to pit and resume in clear air, but Red Bull were confident they could back their racer’s ability to make light work of any cars he came out behind – especially knowing they would have no intention of intruding on the title fight.
Verstappen pitted at the end of lap 13, switching to the hard tyres that, theoretically, could see him to the chequered flag. That would be unlikely, given that it would make it all too easy for Mercedes to cover them off and leave Red Bull powerless to take the fight to their rivals when they needed to most.
“You will be racing [Yuki] Tsunoda and Leclerc,” Verstappen was told. But after almost scaring Leclerc completely off the circuit when rejoining at pit exit, Verstappen resumed in fifth place. That soon became fourth as he breezed by Norris along the back straight thanks to DRS.
With the luxury of being able to cover off the Red Bull, Mercedes opted not to keep Hamilton out in clear air. Instead, Hamilton was pitted immediately after Verstappen to move him onto the hard tyres. If all panned out as planned, the services of Mercedes’ pit crew would no longer be required for the number 44 car that season.
Hamilton was met by wide, open asphalt upon climbing out of the pit lane and rejoining the circuit at the start of lap 15, five seconds to the good over Verstappen, who was dealing with Sainz’s Ferrari, and ten seconds behind Perez. With the Mercedes now isolated and presumably soon to be sandwiched in the order between both Red Bulls, the Milton Keynes team sensed an opportunity to help play the numbers game.
“Plan A – Hamilton’s pitted,” Perez’s engineer Hugh Bird instructed his driver before checking himself. “Correction – plan B.“
Perez had not been shy about his ambitions to support his team mate’s championship challenge in this final showdown. As he breached the upper limits of Pirelli’s suggested lifespan of their soft tyres, Perez began to drop seconds a lap to Hamilton behind on his much fresher hard tyres.
As Verstappen eventually dispatched Sainz for third on the track on lap 18, he sat 12 seconds behind his leading team mate. Hamilton, was just 3.8 seconds from Perez. The next time they crossed the line, Hamilton was barely a second behind.
Perez’s radio made no secret of his team’s intentions. “We’ll be looking to hold up Lewis,” Bird confirmed as the Mercedes began to fill the mirrors of the Red Bull driver.
The skill of defensive driving has been relegated to something of a dark art in the age of DRS-assisted, motorway-style passes. But with his team mate’s nemesis stalking directly within his wake and the championship hopes of the hundreds of Red Bull team personnel sitting squarely on his shoulders in this vital moment, Perez produced an exhibition of defensive driving and deliberate – yet fair – obstruction of a competitor that will surely rank among the best the sport has seen.
As the pair began to dispute the lead, Hamilton’s advantage over Verstappen was 8.5 seconds.
Hamilton cruised up behind Perez and was comfortably tucked up behind his rear wing with his fingertip already on the DRS trigger as they exited turn five. As the Mercedes powered by on the inside before drifting back towards the right, Perez lunged left and dived back ahead of Hamilton, making sure to take the chicane nice and leisurely as he did so.
Hamilton’s tighter exit from seven allowed him to drive around Perez along the straight, but this time it was the Red Bull who had DRS and squeezed against the inside barriers to cut in front once more, hogging the middle line of the long turn nine left-hander to hold him up further.
Making use of the tight, twisty nature of the corners that flank the marina, Perez lazily lagged on the throttle, safe in the knowledge there was little room for Hamilton to do anything about it.
Perez closed off the inside line heading into the final corner of the lap in a bid to delay Hamilton further. But he compromised his own exit, allowing Hamilton a run down the pit straight. Again, Perez claimed the inside line as they both blasted past the cheering grandstands, fending off the Mercedes once more – Hamilton forced to keep in line behind him through the sweeping turns of two, three and four.
Increasingly frustrated, Hamilton considered a dive up the inside into turn five before thinking better of it, perhaps realising that DRS along the following straight would be a far more effective option. Perez used his car to shield Hamilton around the outside of the corner once more, as they both entered the straight.
By now, Verstappen was almost close enough to strike at Hamilton. The Mercedes went by by Perez for the second time in two laps, this time covering off the inside for the chicane. Perez tried to come back once more, but this time he didn’t need to. Just like in qualifying almost 24 hours earlier, Perez offered a tow to his team mate before blending out of the throttle and allowing Verstappen to slingshot by into second place on the approach to the new turn nine.
In the space of just one lap, Perez had gifted his team mate the best part of eight seconds advantage in pursuit of his world championship rival. Verstappen fully understood what his wingman had done for him and paid tribute over radio. “Oh, Checo is a legend,” Verstappen praised his team’s second racer. Having done his duty, Perez was rewarded with a pit stop for new hard tyres.
Mercedes stick while Red Bull twist
While the heat was building up front, further back there was heartache for a number of drivers competing in their final races for their respective teams. First, Kimi Raikkonen saw the longest ever career in Formula 1 by number of race starts end in unceremonious fashion when his car suddenly snapped under braking for turn six, pitching him into gentle contact with the barriers. Raikkonen was forced to park his Alfa Romeo, closing the book on a career that spanned 349 race starts, 21 wins, one world championship and zero regrets.
Soon after Raikkonen vacated his car, George Russell joined him into pulling out of the race, his final outing for Williams curtailed by a gearbox problem. As disappointed as Russell was not to end his tenure with the team that gave him his start in Formula 1 on a high, he will likely be comforted by the knowledge he will have a works Mercedes at his disposal from now on – starting with Wednesday’s tyre test.
At the mid-way point of the race, Hamilton’s advantage to Verstappen had gradually built back to 3.6 seconds. The race leader was beginning to question whether his tyres would indeed last the second half of the race. Mercedes had little reason for concern, however, knowing they were in the exact same position as Verstappen and should be able to keep one step ahead of Red Bull.
That was until Antonio Giovinazzi became the third driver to bow out of the race, joining his team mate in what could well prove to be his final grand prix of his F1 career. Pulling off track on the high-speed exit of turn nine, there was little surprise when race director Michael Masi triggered a Virtual Safety Car to allow marshals to safely recover Giovinazzi’s car.
With no desire to voluntarily give up track position, Mercedes were quick to tell Hamilton to “stay out.” Meanwhile, Red Bull immediately called Verstappen in so they could replace his hard tyres with another, newer, set of hards.
With only Perez behind Verstappen, Red Bull could take advantage of the reduced speeds to give their challenger brand new tyres compared to Hamilton’s 23-lap old set without any compromise to their own track position, banking on Verstappen exploiting that difference in tyre life to hunt down Hamilton over the latter laps.
In the cockpit, the race leader was suddenly nervous. “Are we going to be in trouble?,” Hamilton questioned his team. “Is he going to catch us up? A bit of a risk to leave me out, no?”
When the green flags flew, Hamilton’s lead had grown to 17 seconds, with Verstappen tasked with the mission of making up that gap over the final 21 laps of the race if he was to become the 34th person in history to earn the honour of calling themselves a world champion.
As capable as Verstappen surely was, the most important pursuit of his racing career did not develop the way that he hoped. Red Bull needed Verstappen to eat away Hamilton’s advantage at a rate of around eight tenths a lap, but even with the substantially fresher rubber underneath him, Verstappen’s rate of progress subsided, and he was soon only managing half that rate.
Despite Red Bull giving Verstappen an opportunity to spark into life like he so often can, Hamilton appeared to have an answer for all of it – his only headaches being the packs of quarrelling lapped cars he had to dispatch as he ticked off the laps. A record-breaking eighth world title edging ever closer with every trip over the timing line.
Then, with six laps to go, Peter Bonnington opened the radio.
Fortune favours the brave
“So we have a double-yellow, double-yellow. Turn 14. Stay left, stay left.”
Nicholas Latifi’s wrecked Williams was lying on track at turn 14.
“Safety car, safety car. Staying out, staying out. Keep the delta positive.”
Hamilton’s nerves returned. “Shit, Bono man… I can’t box?”
Hamilton immediately knew what this meant. “Ugh, that’s unbelievable, man…”.
Once again, Red Bull snapped into instant action. They wasted no time bringing Verstappen in for soft tyres – an obvious choice with five laps to go and a restart behind Hamilton now awaiting them.
Back in the Mercedes, realisation was beginning to wash over the race leader. “What’s the situation, behind me?”
“So, the situation is that Verstappen has pitted – he had a free pit stop,” Bonnington told him straight, before offering an explanation for why Mercedes did not do the same.
“We would have lost track position to him.”
This call by the Mercedes strategists may unknowingly have decided the fate of the world championship. Yet, at this stage, neither Hamilton, Mercedes or even Red Bull and Verstappen will have realised it. What was just over a 12 second gap when the safety car was deployed grew to just under 15 seconds by the time Verstappen crossed the white line to enter the pitlane. By the time Verstappen reached the exit, that had become 18.7 seconds, before he was able to begin to catch up the train behind the safety car.
Whether Hamilton would have been able to pit and resume ahead of Verstappen is a question that may well haunt Mercedes throughout the winter months or even beyond. But in their leading car, Hamilton was feeling haunted by the threat of his title rival.
“Oh fuck…” exclaimed Hamilton as a sense of dread hit him. “Is he right behind me?”
Bonnington, apparently expecting race control would move the lapped cars aside before the restart, replied: “He will be.” There was no way of sugar coating this. “Once they’ve sorted out all the order. This is going to take a while to sort out.”
What transpired next, with the decisions made by race control and the furore that followed, is already being furiously debated and may well still be long after both these incredible racing talents have reached the end of their careers. But what matters most – and what ultimately decided the destination of the championship – is what happened out on the track when the racing began again.
After race control took their controversial and late decision to move only the lapped cars between the championship contenders out of the way, Verstappen was freed to sit directly behind the man who would deny him the biggest prize in motorsport for the first time that evening since their close encounter on the opening lap. With new, soft tyres on his car compared to Hamilton’s old, hard tyres – Verstappen was the most empowered he had been all race.
He had been put there because his team had not hesitated to react when presented with the opportunity – first through the support of his team mate, then through two crucial strategy changes made on the fly. And now, tucked up behind a vulnerable Mercedes, Verstappen had finally been given his opportunity to repay them.
A desperate Hamilton was staring at odds stacked firmly against him, but with only one single, precious, lap of green flag racing to endure, if there was any driver who could somehow find a way, they may not have been any racer who has ever been better equipped to do it.
Hamilton did what he could to try and unsettle Verstappen ahead of the restart as he leaned on his raw racing instincts to tell him when the best time would be to floor the throttle, but when he eventually did through turn 14, Verstappen was right there to shadow him.
At the end of an impossibly close, season-long battle between the pair, it had all come down to one final, ultimate lap of pure racing.
The sheer grip advantage offered by Verstappen’s fresh soft tyres were obvious from how he was able to stick so close to his target through the first corner, the car turning in sharper and with more bite than he had felt all race. Maybe that one corner was all he needed to have the confidence to make his move into turn five.
It was bold. It was late. It was brilliant. With total faith in his car, Verstappen launched up the inside of his nemesis for the final time, holding him to the outside of the long left hander. Hamilton did what he could to try and immediately respond, knowing he was losing hope. Verstappen weaved to break the slipstream in a way that flirted with the confines of the rules – just as he had done with Hamilton throughout the season.
Hamilton did a remarkable job to retaliate as much as his did, even pulling back alongside Verstappen on the run to turn nine. As the ‘final boss’ of Formula 1, it was perhaps fitting that Verstappen would have to put away Hamilton just one final time, even when he might have already considered him conquered.
Once Verstappen took his line into turn nine ahead of Hamilton, though, it was all but over. In front of his loved ones, his team, thousands of frenzied orange-clad fans in the grandstands and in front of what would surely be the biggest TV audience for perhaps any Formula 1 race, Max Verstappen crossed the finish line, took the chequered flag, became world champion and realised his destiny.
The Red Bull camp erupted with joy as the sky above them exploded with fireworks.
“It’s unbelievable,“ the new world champion said afterwards. ”Throughout the whole race I kept fighting And then, of course, that opportunity in the last lap. It’s incredible.“
Red Bull’s eight-year wait for another world champion was over and team boss, Christian Horner, was brimming with pride in the driver they had ushered into a Formula 1 race seat at the absurd age of just 17 years old. “He’s had to convert it with that last lap pass on Lewis,” Horner said. “So a wonderful way to win this world championship, and we’re incredibly proud of him.”
In defeat, possibly the most devastating of his career, Hamilton found it in himself to put aside any burning sense of injustice he may have felt and shake hands with the rival he had battled so relentlessly over the year. “Firstly a big congratulations to Max and to his team,” Hamilton offered after the race. “We gave it everything.”
Beyond the madness that unfolded up front, Carlos Sainz Jnr capped off a superb first season for Ferrari with third, while Yuki Tsunoda secured his best finish of a tumultuous rookie season in fourth ahead of team mate Pierre Gasly. Bottas concluded his tenure at Mercedes by finishing sixth, having been a complete non-factor in his team mate’s title fight throughout the weekend.
The end of the race of the season was only the start of the arguments, the social media bickering, the protests and the appeals. Formula 1 had managed to generate the ultimate scenario for a championship showdown and the most remarkable narrative it could have imagined through sheer circumstance. But instead of a satisfying conclusion, the context around the events that decided this race and this title robbed the moment of the purity it so richly deserved.
After all the races, the battles, the controversies, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes had not lost the world championship – Max Verstappen and Red Bull had won them. Two giants of the sport had fought tooth-and-nail over 22 rounds and, in the end, a deserving world champion was crowned because of what happened on track.
The debates and the appeals and the angst will continue for long to come. But what cannot be taken away is the fact that the titanic title battle between two of the sport’s elite talents was determined by a clean overtake on the final lap of the final race.
No contact, no penalties, no quarter given. Just two remarkable racing drivers, both pushing each other and themselves to the absolute end, until one of them won.
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2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
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