The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix may have been the Formula 1 season finale for almost a decade, it’s never been as significant as it has been in 2021. The title contenders Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton were EQUAL on points. Following the controversies from Saudi Arabia the previous weekend, the FIA had put out clear warnings that the two would be docked points for any unsporting conduct. The fan camps for both had been more divisive than ever with some former F1 drivers predicting that the FIA could end up playing a major role in deciding the outcome of the 2021 championship. Oh, how right they were. 

The Yas Marina Circuit had been given a fair few updates for the 2021 season. It has reduced the number of corners and smoothened out others with the false hope of encouraging more racing around the track. Turns 5 and 6 have been removed and it’s now a straight line from Turn 4 to the NEW Turn 5 hairpin (previously Turn 7) before the first DRS zone. Next to go is the odd chicane at the end of the second DRS zone with a banked Turn 9 (wide left-hander) replacing Turns 11, 12, 13, and 14. The sequence of corners around the hotel area has been rounded off as well which makes them less tight and faster to get around. This new layout, on paper, seemed to benefit the Mercedes package more than the Red Bull package.

The new banked corner caught some driver’s out in practice as they tried to find the fastest line and the latest braking point. Kimi Raikkonen had an incident prone Friday with a spin on Turn 9 and a crash at Turn 14.

In the build-up to qualifying, Lewis seemed to have the upper hand over Max in terms of single lap pace while the two seemed evenly matched on the longer runs. Valtteri and Sergio were right behind them, throwing a shadow over Red Bull’s statistical chance at clinching the Constructor’s title along with the Driver’s world championship. 

The challengers revealed their hand in Q2 by sending both Verstappen and Perez on the Soft tyres, which would be the compound they’d start the race on. Mercedes stuck with the Medium tyres for its drivers, strategising around its inherent pace advantage while Red Bull went aggressive with the fastest possible setup. In Q3, Max needed a slipstream from Checo down the second DRS zone to set the fastest lap for Pole position. Hamilton was only three-tenths slower in his solo attempt but was still an immense threat starting on the front row. 

Bottas had a bit of a slump in qualifying and was only sixth fastest and would start behind Perez who’d line up fourth on the grid. It was a bit of a stunner from Lando Norris to qualify third fastest while Carlos Sainz found himself between the No.77 Merc and No.11 Bull. Meanwhile, Charles Leclerc was only seventh fastest and AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda found a way to end his rookie F1 season on a high by qualifying eighth fastest. Esteban Ocon and Daniel Ricciardo were the bottom two in Q3 and took the fifth row on the grid. A lot of the surprise Q2 knockouts were down to last-minute bunching up on the out-lap as drivers tried to avoid giving a rival any slipstream advantage. 

The atmosphere was ablaze with tension as the cars began their formation lap on Sunday evening at the Yas Marina Circuit. We were 58 laps away from making F1 history to conclude a season that will go down as one of the most intense ever thanks to the championship rivalry between two living legends: Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton. As usual, the Red Bull was quick to line up for the start while the Mercedes slowly and tactically rolled into its spot on the front row. Hamilton got off the line much better than Verstappen and was ahead as they rounded Turn 1.

Norris went wide and opened the door for Checo to move into P3 while Bottas fell to P7 behind the two Ferraris. Lewis was already edging away from Max as they started down the first big straight after Turn 5 but the Red Bull tucked in behind the Mercedes for the slipstream. Hamilton stuck to the outer racing line leaving the door open for a late lunge from Max into the tight Turn 6. There wasn’t enough room for both cars as the Red Bull, with its nose well ahead of the Mercedes, tried to round the corner. Hamilton opted to cut the corner and aim for the run-off to avoid a collision with Verstappen but ended up gaining a big advantage because of it. It wasn’t a blatant breach of rules but almost everyone expected the stewards to ask Lewis to return the position. Then came the first of the many controversial calls from FIA that night: No investigation necessary. 

Hamilton and Mercedes were the faster duo around the circuit that night as Max Verstappen found himself dropping behind after just a few laps. The Soft tyres began to drop off early forcing the Dutchman to stop for Hard tyres after just 13 laps. Mercedes could have gone for a longer stint with Lewis on the Mediums but decided to pit him the following lap for the same tyre change. At the time, it seemed logical to cover off potential risks later in the race but this decision ended up setting off a chain of events that would prove to be the wrong choices. Meanwhile, Perez was running in P3 stayed out on his Softs to take the lead and track position advantage.

It wasn’t going to be long until Hamilton caught up with the No.11 Red Bull and already had a comfortable gap to the other one driven by his title rival. As the seven-time world champion got closer to the rear wing of Perez, the Mexican driver got the message to try and hold up the Brit as best as he could. What happened next was one of the defining moments of Sergio’s F1 career, as a driver and as a teammate. 

On Lap 20, Hamiton was well within a second of Checo, down the main straight and with DRS. Perez had been saving up his battery for this exact purpose and using it to counter the pace difference as best as he could. He went in deep to try and force Lewis wide but the Merc overtook him down the inside anyway. The added pace still compromised Hamilton’s racing line and as he went out wide to make the tight Turn 6, Perez dove down the inside to retake the position. Lewis cut back on Turn 7 to take the inside line as Sergio had to take the wider exit and got ahead again. This was a cunning play by the Mexican who let the Brit ahead just before the DRS detection line which would give him the advantage of the open rear wing on the following straight. Despite his worn-down Softs, Perez managed to overtake Lewis down the inside line towards Turn 9 and stay ahead at the exit too. He then proceeded to plant his car on track in the most defensive line possible through the tight hotel section (Sector 3) till the end of the lap. We thought Hamilton for sure would breeze past him down the main straight but his momentum was compromised and allowed Sergio to continue to fight for the position and hold the lead through Turn 1 as well. This battle continued through till Turn 5 with Hamilton still behind Checo’s rear wing. This whole time, Max was catching them up and managed to reduce his 8.5-second deficit to Lewis, down to just 1.3 seconds. Hamilton finally got past Perez down the first DRS zone on Lap 21 but with Verstappen now visible in his mirrors. Checo let Max pass on the second DRS straight before pitting for his new set of Hard tyres. After a difficult season with not enough points to keep Red Bull in the constructor’s battle, Sergio had more than earned his keep by handing Max a second chance at the title fight in this season finale. Yes, there is so much more to Checo as a racing driver but this performance will down in history for its momentous significance.

After that epic lap from Sergio Perez, Verstappen was within visual range of his rival and on similarly aged Hard tyres. There was hope again for every Red Bull and MV33 fan, many of whom were in attendance that night. But the hope began to dwindle as the dominant machine that is Lewis Hamilton began to pull away again in his era-conquering Mercedes. Red Bull was clearly going for the double stop to go as fast as possible and hope that would be enough to beat the defending champions. 

The window for the second stop arose on Lap 37 when Antonio Giovinazzi had to retire his car out on track, triggering the virtual safety car. Verstappen pitted the second time for another set of fresh Hards and so did Perez who was running in P3. This time, Mercedes did not risk losing track position and left Lewis out on track on the Hard tyres that were more than 25 laps old by then.

The fresh tyres and the VSC pitstop helped Max a little bit as he began to eat into the Lewis’ lead but there just wasn’t enough pace in his race package to make up for the outright difference in performance. The Red Bull team knew they needed a miracle to turn this around but their hope began to wane once again as the laps counted down. With 5 laps left, Verstappen was almost 12 seconds behind Hamilton. That’s when it came, Red Bull’s miracle.

Nicholas Latifi had crashed at Turn 14 while battling Mick Schumacher for P15. His Williams had had a big impact with the barrier, just like Raikkonen did during FP2. The yellow flags and Safety Car were deployed almost immediately. Hamilton had just gone past the pit lane entry when it happened but Verstappen was able to jump in for a set of fresh Soft tyres for one last dash. But he did rejoin behind a train of backmarkers. Mercedes decided to protect track position and kept Lewis out on his very old Hard tyres.

Given the few laps left and how the field was spread out, it seemed unlikely that we’d get any racing laps before the chequered flag. This is where the biggest drama in recent F1 history began to unfold as the FIA made some questionable decisions when it came to following protocols. Here’s the rough sequence of events:

  • On Lap 56 of 58, the stewards announced that lapped cars will not be allowed to overtake the SC. This suggests the race will end under SC conditions, handing the win to Hamilton.
  • Early on in Lap 57, we get a TV broadcast of communication between Red Bull team principal Christian Horner and Race Director Michael Masi, asking why the lapped cars were not being allowed to overtake the SC (the usual protocol for race restart after using the SC). At this point, Norris, Alonso, Ocon, Leclerc and Vettel were in between Max and Lewis. 
  • As the cars approached Sector 3 of Lap 57, those cars are instructed to overtake the SC, clearing the path for Max to be behind Lewis.
  • Just after that, it is announced that the SC period is ending. This brings the SC into the pits at the end of Lap 57 and allows the racing to resume on the final lap. 
  • As the car’s round the final few corners, Verstappen gets right alongside Hamilton. Lewis controls the restart as the race leader but he was heavily compromised on his tyres compared to Max.
  • Hamilton tried to prolong the start as best as he could, driving slow as possible to maybe catch the Red Bull out of position for the restart or mess with the heat and grip in his tyres. That was also when we got Mercedes’ team principal’s radio message to Masi stating that what was happening was not right.
  • It was green flags and Go! Go! Go! as Hamilton rounded the final corner to start the final lap of the season. 

The defending champion held the lead through the first corner. Max went for the gap down the inside of Turn 5, just like he did on the opening lap of this race, but made it stick and overtook the Mercedes without any contact. This was it. He was in the lead on the final lap of the season with just 10 corners left. Lewis was likely using whatever battery energy he had saved up for this last battle as he tucked in behind the Red Bull for the straight to try and catch up. There wasn’t any DRS available but the Mercedes still seemed to have more straight-line speed. Max weaved a bit to try and break the tow and held position as they entered the Turn 6-7 chicane for the next long straight. Lewis got a better exit and was right behind Max, who was no longer weaving to avoid any penalties. (Note: This is when we got the now meme-FAMOUS broadcast of Toto shouting “NO, NO, NO MICHAEL”) The Dutchman clung to the inside line forcing the Brit to take the outside lane as they approached Turn 9 side by side. On those fresh Softs, the Red Bull had the grip to brake harder and carry the pace through the tighter line for the banked corner. That was it. Hamilton had no more overtaking chances through Sector 3.

Max Verstappen crossed the line in P1 at the 2021 Abu Dhabi GP to become a Formula 1 World Champion. After everything that had happened over the year which includes spectacular driving, a 51G crash, a tyre blowout down the fastest straight at Baku, landing on top of his rival’s car, and much FIA controversy…it came down to one final lap. With 10 race wins in the year, 24-year-old Max Verstappen driving for Red Bull Racing is the new World Champion.

Less than 2 seconds behind, Lewis Hamilton crossed the finish line. After a phenomenal drive all night and a dominant performance in the closing stages of the 2021 season, he’d lost the championship on the final lap. The seven-time world champion had won 9 races this season, and not made any mistakes for the last 58 laps in the final one. Hamilton is a legend for his racing skills but there’s always an element of luck involved and this time, fortunes chose the other guy. 

With all the focus on those two, everyone nearly forgot about the rest of the grid. It feels even more ridiculous when you consider the fact that Sainz managed to finish P3 and end his first season with Ferrari with a tally of four podiums. Sergio Perez had pitted behind Max after Latifi’s crash brought on the SC but had to be retired two laps later. Sainz was P4 at that time and opted to stay out instead of pitting at the time. The Spaniard’s performance was good enough to secure fifth in the driver’s championship, ahead of Leclerc and Norris. Charles was on a different tyre strategy, and it didn’t quite work for him as he crossed the finish line in P10. 

Meanwhile, Yuki Tsunoda managed to finish P4 for his best result of the season. It was another solid result for his teammate Pierre Gasly in P5 after starting 12th on the grid. Unfortunately, AlphaTauri had fallen too far behind Alpine in the Constructor’s championship and finished sixth.

In his last race for Mercedes, Bottas finished P6. The Finn was not part of the title battle all night and just seemed to be chilling and getting used to being part of the midfield for next year when he’ll be piloting an Alfa Romeo Sauber. He had a poor start, lost a few places in the first stint and only managed to finish where he started.

Lando Norris had also suffered from a poor start to his race and finished it in P7. He had also lost out on the last lap chaos with no chance of catching up with the cars ahead in the closing stages. His teammate Daniel Ricciardo seemed to have gone back into his rut of non-points finishes with a P12 to end his 2021 campaign. 

Alpine had a strong end to the season with Ocon and Alonso finishing P8 and P9, respectively. The team had shown strong character throughout and continued to capitalise on opportunities that arose mid-race to make up positions and earn valuable points.

The first of the DNFs of the Abu Dhabi GP was Kimi Raikkonen on Lap 29, retiring the car due to a brake failure after clipping the barrier. It’s a sad way to end one’s last race in Formula 1 but I guess it’s what the Iceman would have wanted – to be able to go home before everyone else after doing his best.

George Russell was also unable to finish his last race for Williams due to a mechanical failure. The Brit would be racing for Mercedes next year, alongside Hamilton, and he is likely to be a title contender from the very first race.

Nikita Mazepin did not start the race as he tested positive for Covid on Saturday. Only 19 cars took part in the final race of the season. Funny how Mick was involved in the incident that gave Verstappen the chance to stop Hamilton from besting his dad’s record number of F1 world championships. 

After the chequered flag

Hamilton was visibly upset with what had transpired in the last few laps and was spotted by TV cameras talking to his dad in the pits. Meanwhile, Verstappen was taking in the moment and celebrating with his dad and his team. Whatever Lewis was told by his dad likely helped him regain his composure as the 7-time champ was then seeing congratulating the new World Champion. It was a good show of sportsmanship, especially from Lewis, after a long and vicious rivalry through the season.

In the paddock, Mercedes had immediately lodged complaints with the FIA regarding the Safety Car protocols that had been observed towards the end of the race. We will discuss these and the results of this protest in a separate story. FIA’s actions at the Abu Dhabi did end up tarnishing an otherwise glorious season of F1.

But after a few days of back and forth between various legal teams at Mercedes and the governing body, it became official: Max Verstappen was the new World Champion.

Final classification for the 2021 Abu Dhabi GP:—

  1. M. Verstappen Red Bull Racing Honda — 1:30:17.345
  2. L. Hamilton Mercedes +2.256
  3. C. Sainz Ferrari +5.173
  4. Y. Tsunoda AlphaTauri Honda +5.692
  5. P. Gasly AlphaTauri Honda +6.531
  6. V. Bottas Mercedes +7.463
  7. L. Norris McLaren Mercedes +59.200
  8. F. Alonso Alpine Renault +61.708
  9. E. Ocon Alpine Renault +64.026
  10. C. Leclerc Ferrari +66.057
  11. S. Vettel Aston Martin Mercedes +67.527
  12. D. Ricciardo McLaren Mercedes +1 Lap
  13. L. Stroll Aston Martin Mercedes +1 Lap
  14. M. Schumacher Haas Ferrari +1 Lap
  15. S. Perez Red Bull Racing Honda DNF
  16. N. Latifi Williams Mercedes DNF
  17. A. Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo Sauber Ferrari DNF
  18. G. Russell Williams Mercedes DNF
  19. K. Räikkönen Alfa Romeo Racing Ferrari DNF
  20. N. Mazepin Haas Ferrari DNS

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