A New Champion

A season that was filled with drama from start to finish fittingly came down to the final lap of the final race and Max Verstappen became the 2021 Formula 1 world champion.


Max Verstappen won the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and also became the 2021 Formula 1 world champion (courtesy of twitter).

After the initial preseason test in mid-March and 21 races, the 2021 Formula 1 season came to an end at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. After such a rollercoaster of a season, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was level on points with the Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton in the Drivers’ Championship.

The goal for both drivers was simple: finish ahead of your opponent to win. It would be his first title if Verstappen won and Hamilton was pursuing his record breaking eight title, aiming to surpass Michael Schumacher’s total of seven. Verstappen led the championship heading into the weekend since he had won more races than Hamilton. Meanwhile, Mercedes had a 28 point gap to Red Bull in the Constructors’ Championship.

The Yas Marina circuit received a change in layout, which was meant to improve the racing and make it easier for overtaking. When it came time for qualifying, Verstappen struck the first blow by sticking his Red Bull onto pole position with Hamilton over three tenths behind. Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez qualified in fourth. Both Verstappen and Perez started on the soft tires while Hamilton opened on the mediums. The softs are quicker but do not go as far as the mediums.

Hamilton got an excellent start when the lights went out and overtook Verstappen before turn one. Perez also got a good start and moved into third. Verstappen was now behind Hamilton and used the slipstream to send the car on the inside before turn six. Hamilton went off the track and remained in front while Verstappen had to take the corner. Verstappen was immediately on the radio demanding that Hamilton give him the place since he cut the corner and gave an advantage. The race stewards looked at the incident and declared that no action was necessary.

Hamilton was quick on those mediums and started to create a gap to Verstappen. Verstappen’s tires started to go off after a few laps, meaning that he needed to pit. Verstappen pitted for hard tires on lap 13 with Hamilton immediately responding on the following lap. Hamilton emerged from the pits still ahead of Verstappen and Perez was now in the lead albeit without a pit stop. Hamilton was over 10 seconds behind Perez but on fresher tires and the rear of Perez after 20 laps. Perez was told to hold up Hamilton to let Verstappen catch up and to damage Hamilton’s tires.

Hamilton appeared to pass Perez on the first straight on lap 20, but Perez was able to retake the lead with the help of drag reduction system on the back straight. This was ruining Hamilton’s race. All of this time behind Perez played directly into Verstappen’s hands. On that same lap after Perez retook the lead, he made his Red Bull as wide as possible in the technical third sector, parking his car on every apex and making Hamilton lose valuable seconds. Hamilton eventually made the move stick on lap 21, but Verstappen reduced an eight second gap after the pit stops to less than two. Perez let Verstappen breeze by to not hold his teammate up once Hamilton passed him.

Meanwhile at the back of the grid, Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen retired due to a brake failure. Raikkonen said that he would retire after this season earlier in the year. The “Iceman” has always been a fan favorite with his short responses, iconic quotes and endless memes. He won the championship by a single point back in 2007 and holds the record for most race starts with 349. His wit and personality is something that the entire paddock and the fanbase will miss.

Raikkonen’s teammate Antonio Giovinazzi retired on lap 35 due to a mechanical problem and brought out the virtual safety car (VSC). The VSC requires all cars to follow a designated time while the marshals clear the track of Giovinazzi’s car. The VSC is a great time for a pit stop since drives lose less time and effectively get a cheaper stop while everyone else is going slower than normal. Verstappen thus pit again and reemerged on fresher tires. Mercedes decided not to pit Hamilton because  Verstappen would have overtaken them if he did since he was too close to Hamilton. Verstappen’s gap to Hamilton was 16.9 seconds once the VSC ended. Verstappen now had to put his foot to the floor on fresher tires.

Lap after lap, Verstappen was gaining, but it was not at the pace necessary to overtake. With 10 laps to go and the gap at around 13 seconds, Hamilton had one hand on a record eight championship. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said that they needed a miracle in the last 10 laps for Verstappen to win the championship.

Here is where this season finale went from crazy to absolute madness. With five laps to go, on lap 53, Williams’ Nicolas Latifi crashed out and brought out a safety car. Like the VSC, drivers could pit and get a cheap pit stop. Once again, Mercedes did not pit Hamiton because they would lose track position  if they did. Verstappen pitted for new soft tires in what was essentially a free pit stop since the gap to third was enormous. The tide was now on Verstappen’s side with fresh tires in comparison to Hamilton’s old hards which would be much slower. 

Critically, there were five cars who were lapped by Hamilton in between both title rivals. Usually during a safety car, the race director will let lapped cars overtake the safety car in an attempt to unlap themselves. However, with the marshals clearing Latifi’s car, the decision was made that no cars could unlap themselves. This meant that Verstappen had to get through five cars to catch up to Hamilton whenever the safety car pulled in and racing resumed. Those five cars were obligated to let Verstappen by, but Hamilton would be in the distance by that time. With the laps winding down, it looked like the race would either finish under the safety car or with one final lap of actual racing. Red Bull asked the racing director Michael Masi to let the cars unlap themselves so Verstappen could be directly behind Hamilton but to no avail.

Or so we thought. On lap 57, Masi allowed the five cars, and only the five cars, inbetween Verstappen and Hamilton to unlap themselves. Within 10 seconds of that announcement, it was announced that the safety car was in this lap. This meant that there would be one lap of racing with Verstappen right on Hamilton’s heels to decide the title. When the cars unlapped themselves and the safety car was called in, Mercedes was immediately on the radios to Masi, furious with the sudden change in the race.

Verstappen was right alongside Hamilton as the safety car pulled into the pit lane and even appeared to momentarily overtake him. Hamilton tried to catch Verstappen unaware, but the young Dutchman was on his back as they started the last lap. Verstappen was gaining and gaining and he sent his car on the inside of Hamilton and took the lead right before turn five. It was not over yet with two more straights on the circuit as Verstappen had to defend for his life. Hamiton was alongside Verstappen on the outside of the final straight but Verstappen defended brilliantly and retained the lead.

After 58 laps, Verstappen crossed the finish line to win the race and become the 2021 Formula 1champion. Hamilton was two seconds behind and Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz Jr. rounded out the podium. The entire Red Bull garage was ecstatic and jumping with joy as Horner had tears roll down his face.

The Mercedes team was stunned. They could not believe it. Hamilton could not believe that he lost the title on the last lap of the race. Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff demanded that Masi reinstate how the grid was before the final lap.

Mercedes launched two protests immediately after the race, alleging that several sporting regulations were broken and that Hamilton would have won were the rules properly followed. One protest was that Verstappen passed Hamilton under the safety car. This protest was quickly thrown out. The other protest focused on the sporting regulations under the safety car. The main regulation they cited was that if lapped cars were overtaking the safety car, the safety car could only come in the lap after that. That would have meant that the race ended under the safety car. The protest was denied since another regulation stated that once the safety car is called in, it has to come in that lap, which supersedes the previous regulation. Mercedes announced that they would appeal this decision and yesterday the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) announced that they would investigate the race.

After all of this, Mercedes still won the Constructors Championship, making it eight titles in a row for the team. This was one of the greatest seasons of all time and if you had told me at the start of the season that this was how it was going to end, I would have called you crazy. This year marks the end of an era with next year bringing new technical regulations that could potentially reshuffle the pecking order. During the break, the teams will be working overtime to ensure that their cars will be able to compete for not only wins, but for the championships. I can’t wait if this season is an indicator of how competitive next year will be.