Controversy galore as Verstappen takes championship from Hamilton on last lap
Max Verstappen clinched his maiden World Championship at the season finale in Abu Dhabi. Verstappen took the win on the very last lap of the race after a late restart under the Safety Car, which saw Hamilton on used old tyres, unable to fend off Verstappen to take his eighth championship. Verstappen was behind Hamilton for almost the entirety of the race except the last few corners and managed retake the lead and hold on to it for the final few meters as he went on to take a much deserved championship. Mercedes though, do not leave Abu Dhabi empty handed as Hamilton’s second place, Valtteri Bottas’ sixth place along with Sergio Pérez’s DNF means, Mercedes wrap up the Constructors’ championship in style, albeit they would have wanted to leave the UAE with both the championships.
Verstappen, started on pole, leading from Hamilton, but it was the latter who got the better start and took the lead even before we got to Turn One. Verstappen though, did try to retake the lead but forced Hamilton off the track, which meant the Brit had to cut across the run-off area to rejoin in first place although Red Bull were immediately on the radio to race control. Verstappen’s over-aggressive move which pushed Hamilton wide was deemed to be the main cause of Hamilton cutting across and no further investigation was necessary. Hamilton though, once back on the track was straight on the pace and flew away into the distance. By the time we got to lap 4, Hamilton was almost two seconds clear of Verstappen and lapping a second quicker than the Dutchman.
Verstappen, starting on the soft compound tyres, was the first of the front runners to pit on lap 14, coming out in fifth place, as his teammate Pérez slotted in second position. Mercedes immediately reacted and called in Hamilton the following lap and a swift stop from the Mercedes pit crew saw Hamilton rejoin in second place, 11 seconds behind Pérez. Hamilton caught up to the Mexican on lap 20 but the Mexican was playing the team game for Verstappen and put up a herculean defensive drive to keep the Brit behind. Hamilton did manage to squeeze past Pérez on the straight but the Red Bull used the DRS and save up energy to attack Hamilton and retake the lead. As Hamilton continued to jostle with Pérez, Verstappen was catching up to the Brit and by the time Hamilton finally managed to get past Perez on lap 22, Verstappen was just 1.3 seconds behind Hamilton.
Lap 26 saw the first retirement of the race and it was the departing Kimi Räikkönen, who suffered a brake issue in his final Grand Prix which saw him lose his rear and hit the barrier, damaging his front wing. The Finn ultimately did manage to limp back to the pits but unfortunately for the 2007 world champion, it was a quiet end to an iconic career. By lap 30, Hamilton managed to get back on the pace and was almost four seconds clear of Verstappen as he went about setting the fastest lap, every second lap. Lap 36 saw some more action as the other departing Alfa Romeo of Antonio Giovinazzi spun out and retired on the track, bringing out the virtual safety car. Red Bull immediately called in Verstappen to pit while Mercedes left Hamilton out to keep track position, with 22 laps to go.
As the VSC ended, Hamilton led Verstappen by 17.6 seconds and with fresher tyres on Verstappen, Hamilton knew he would have to defend with everything he had to keep his position. By lap 49, Hamilton had eased out his lead in the front once again as he built lead of over 10 seconds and with another 10 laps to go. Just as it looked as if Hamilton would manage to hold on to this lead and take an eighth world championship, there was a final twist in the tale. The Williams of Nicholas Latifi crashed out on lap 54 and brought out the safety car which played right into Red Bull’s hands. Red Bull brought in Verstappen for a pair of fresh soft tyres. Mercedes though, kept Hamilton out as they knew; bringing him in would see them lose the race lead. As the safety car was coming in, race control initially announced that the lapped cars would not be allowed to overtake which meant, Verstappen had one lap to get past the five cars in between him and Hamilton and then take the lead from Hamilton. Just as the safety car came in though, race control updated their call and said the back markers would be allowed to overtake the safety car which meant Verstappen was right on Hamilton’s gearbox with only one lap left in the race.
On fresher rubber, Verstappen had no trouble breezing past the Mercedes and even though Hamilton tried everything, without DRS and with a old set of hard compound tyres, Hamilton just couldn’t defend his lead. Just as Red Bull team boss Christian Horner had said to Sebastian Vettel all those years ago in Abu Dhabi back in 2010, Horner repeated his words on the radio to Verstappen with a slight adjustment as he said, Max Verstappen, you are the champion! The world champion” Horner and Verstappen were understandably emotional and the Red Bull garage was wild with emotion. They waited eight years to get their hands on a championship trophy and when they did get it, they had to dig deep and fight tooth and nail to get it.
Hamilton, who led from almost the entirety of the race, lost not only the race but a record eighth title with that late dramatic twist, a call that will be debated for many months and years to come. Should race control have allowed the back markers to overtake or not? One can debate till kingdom comes but take nothing away from Verstappen, he has been stunning not just in Abu Dhabi but throughout the 2021 season and he deserves that title. For Hamilton, the wait for an eighth title will have to go on for a little while longer.
Carlos Sainz’s third place finish means that Ferrari take the P3 spot in the constructors’ championship ahead of McLaren, while even though both AlphaTauri’s had a strong finish to the season with fourth and fifth respective, a double points finish for Alpine also means the French team keep their fifth place in the constructors’ standing.
With Verstappen’s win, he becomes Red Bull’s first drivers’ champion since Sebastian Vettel, who won four consecutive titles with the team from 2010 and 2013. With regulation changes coming next season and driver changes imminent as well, we can only hope that the final season of the turbo-hybrid era was just a precursor of things to come.
As one of the most closely contested Formula One season comes to an end, it is time to acknowledge and appreciate the greatness of two champions who gave it all on the track to take the fight to the very end, quite literally. It is also worth noting that we acknowledge and celebrate not only Verstappen’s win but also the career of an all-time great, Kimi Räikkönen. Räikkönendrew the curtains on his 20 year career at Abu Dhabi and although he would not have been proud of the way his final race ended, he can be more than proud of the career he has had. The 2007 world champion still remains as Ferrari’s last champion to date and having taken on the likes of Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen, there weren’t many who could beat Räikkönen on the Finn’s day. Along with Räikkönen, his teammate at Alfa Romeo, Antonio Giovinazzi also says goodbye to Formula One for the time being as the Italian heads off to Formula E next season.
With a new driver line up, new regulations and a new world champion, we can’t wait for the 2022 season to get underway!