The 2021 Formula One season was like none other. One of the most intense seasons in recent history, the thrilling season saw the rise of a new world champion in Max Verstappen. The drama-filled season went down to the wire, with the championship only being decided on the very final lap of the final race.
A season that saw a total of 12 different drivers on the podium, with the championship lead changing hands almost at the end of every second race, saw only the second time in almost 40 years the two championship protagonists going into the season finale tied on equal points.
Looking back at an exhilarating season, I have listed down a few key moments that defined the 2021 Formula One season and eventually led to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen taking home his maiden title.
Abu Dhabi | 2020
Yes, if we are looking at key moments that defined the season, we have to start with the final race of the previous season.
By the time the drivers got to Abu Dhabi in 2020, both the Drivers’ and the Constructors’ titles were already decided; Lewis Hamilton had returned to the paddock after missing the previous race due to COVID-19 and Mercedes were looking to cap off another strong year with a win at their so-called fortress in Abu Dhabi. Since 2014, no other driver had taken pole or won the race at the Yas Marina Circuit except a Mercedes driver, and all of the previous seven races leading to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix 2020 were won from pole.
If you had bet on another Mercedes victory, you would have probably backed yourself to win that. But Max Verstappen that weekend had other plans. Although Mercedes were superior throughout the season, Red Bull had made significant gains throughout the season and the true nature of their upgrades was showcased at the 2020 season finale. Verstappen put in a stunning qualifying lap on Saturday to snatch pole from Valtteri Bottas, going three-thousandths quicker than the Finn. In taking pole, he became the first non-Mercedes driver to take pole in Abu Dhabi and the first Red Bull driver since Sebastian Vettel in 2013 to take pole.
On Sunday, Verstappen was untouchable. Once he got off the line cleanly, he led every lap of the race and romped to a comfortable victory, a good 15 seconds clear of Bottas in second place. Red Bull had achieved what no other team since 2013 had managed. Not only did they challenge Mercedes on one of their strongest and most dominated tracks, but they also beat them fair and square.
The signs were clear — Red Bull had finally arrived to the party and were ready to be a serious title contender for the 2021 season.
Heading into the race in Baku, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen had a four-point lead over his championship rival Lewis Hamilton, and with the pace his Red Bull car had shown on the street circuit in Monaco the previous race, Verstappen was the favourite going into the race.
As the grid got into the action on Saturday to take the all-important pole on a street circuit, it looked like it would be another fight between Hamilton and Verstappen for pole. Hamilton was fastest in Q1, while Verstappen topped Q2. Hamilton was set for pole, but out of nowhere, the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc took pole, while Verstappen could only manage P3.
On race day, Leclerc knew he wasn’t in the fight for the victory and conceded quickly, but quick pit stops and smart strategy from the Red Bull team saw Verstappen pip Hamilton for the lead. Verstappen looked set for victory, leading the race comfortably from his teammate Sergio Pérez in second place, with Hamilton in third. However, on Lap 44, Verstappen suffered a spectacular left-rear puncture on the main straight that saw him crash into the barriers, ending his race. The damage was sufficient enough for the race to be red-flagged.
Once racing resumed, it was Pérez who was starting P1 from Hamilton, while Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel slotted in third. Hamilton knew this was his moment to not only retake the championship lead but also build up a significant gap given that Verstappen wasn’t going to score any points at all.
At the restart, Pérez had a slow start and Hamilton passed him on the inside of Turn 1, but the Brit selected the incorrect brake mode while trying to make the turn which saw him lock up at a high speed and head straight onto the escape road. Pérez managed to hold on to the lead while Vettel finished second, but Hamilton’s unusual driver error at the restart meant he finished 14th and out of the points.
On a day his main championship rival crashed out and he had the opportunity to score a good amount of points, Hamilton’s error meant neither driver scored any points leaving Baku, and this was something that would come back to bite the seven-time World Champion later in the season.
Coming into the Dutch Grand Prix, it was Hamilton who had a slender lead in the championship standings, with Verstappen just three points behind him. With Zandvoort hosting the first Dutch Grand Prix since 1985 and home hero Verstappen contesting in a championship fight, there was no doubt about who had the advantage going into the race.
Although Mercedes had put in strong performances in the races leading up to the Dutch Grand Prix, the Red Bull driver had made significant gains and was looking extremely threatening. Verstappen drew first blood on home soil as he took pole with an untouchable qualifying lap, which showcased the raw pace of his Red Bull car around the Zandvoort Circuit.
Once Verstappen led off the line on Sunday, there was just no stopping him, and even though Mercedes tried to stop him with two cars, the Red Bull driver was just too quick for either Mercedes.
Verstappen, in the end, won by a comfortable margin of over 20 seconds, and Mercedes knew they had a true challenger on board this season, one who was much much quicker than them.
Like Abu Dhabi, the United States Grand Prix was another stronghold for the German team. Since 2014, only once had they not won in Austin, and they were once again the favourites heading into the race.
Verstappen came into the race with a six-point lead over Hamilton and was looking to build on that. He took a shock pole in Austin and then converted that into a stunning win on Sunday. With Hamilton taking the lead heading into Turn 1, Verstappen was immediately on the back foot. The Dutchman, though, was the first to pit, trying to under-cut Hamilton, and it worked to perfection when he managed to hold on to P1 once Hamilton emerged from his pit stop.
The lead changed hands once again when Verstappen and Hamilton got their second stops done, but on fresher tyres, Hamilton was hunting down the Red Bull. For the last couple of laps, Hamilton was within DRS range of Verstappen, but the Dutchman somehow managed to hold on to the lead to take his maiden US Grand Prix win.
With a win in Austin, not only did Verstappen leave the United States with a 12-point advantage, he was now favourite to take the championship with only five races to go.
An epic season came to an epic conclusion at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.
At one point of time, after his wins in the United States and Mexico, it looked like Verstappen could wrap up the title even before we got to the United Arab Emirates, but a herculean fightback from the reigning World Champion meant the title was going down to the wire.
Mercedes topped both the final two practice sessions, but it was Verstappen once again taking a shock pole at the Yas Marina, going three-tenths quicker than Hamilton and taking the advantage at the most crucial race of his career yet.
However, Verstappen lost that lead immediately, with Hamilton getting a better start. The two had a small tussle going into the Turn 6 chicane on the opening lap, which saw Verstappen force Hamilton wide, who in turn went off-track and kept his lead in doing so. Although Red Bull were on the radio to race control, arguing that Hamilton should have given back the position, race control in a controversial reply said that Hamilton had given back the advantage gained, which didn’t seem likely.
Hamilton, though, got on with his job at hand. He knew that in order to win a record eighth title he would need to finish ahead of Verstappen, and that is what he set about to do.
Hamilton led comfortably till his pit stop, and although he managed to come out ahead of Verstappen, he faced resistance from Verstappen’s teammate, Sergio Pérez. After a short battle with Pérez, Hamilton cleared the Mexican and set out once again, building up a decent gap to Verstappen. It looked like Hamilton would take the win on a platter.
But a dramatic season was not to end without some last-minute drama: on Lap 53, the Williams of Nicholas Latifi crashed out, bringing out the safety car, which saw Verstappen pit for fresher tyres. Mercedes kept track position, leaving Hamilton out, and Verstappen came out in second place but now had five lapped cars between himself and Hamilton.
On the restart, race control initially announced that the lapped cars would not be allowed to overtake but later changed their verdict, sending out the message that only five cars would be able to unlap themselves. Although this last-minute weird call by the race director was disagreed upon by Mercedes, racing got underway as soon as the fifth lapped car unlapped itself, which left Hamilton defenceless against Verstappen, with the latter on fresher tyres on the last lap. Even though Hamilton tried to keep track position, Verstappen was just too quick on the new rubber and sped away to the win and his maiden World Championship.
A stunning season came to a controversial end, but nonetheless, Verstappen was worthy of the title given his impressive driving throughout the season. It was probably poetic that he took the championship in Abu Dhabi, where it all began for Red Bull a year ago; their charge towards the title had come full circle.