Formula One’s Last 2021 Race Dissected

Photo: Getty Images
Max Verstappen
Photo: Getty Images

The 2021 Formula One season ended on Sunday. Going into the last – of 22 races – contest of the year, major protagonists Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen were tied in points. As the weekend unfolded, many of us had memories of Senna vs Prost, Schumacher and Hill and the inevitable feeling that the duo would find a way to take one another out. That scenario would he advantageous for Verstappen, who would then have won on a number of victories; he had one more than Hamilton.

But they played it on the track and the results had most everyone invested in F1 disliking the way this story ended.

Verstappen, who had earned pole position in Abu Dhabi, had a miserable reaction time when the lights went out and Hamilton, who started second, took advantage of that unforced error to take the lead. His younger opponent tried to take back P1 in the fifth corner by elbowing Hamilton, who went off-course to avoid any carnage. Race control conferred and said they’d take no action. That left the Briton in the lead and the orange-dressed Netherlands fans deflated for the bulk of the 58-lap contest.

While the race at Yas Marina Circuit has been won by the pole sitter every year since 2015, it didn’t look like this pole man had the goods to overtake his enemy as the race went on. Verstappen started on the soft compound Pirelli tire while Hamilton initially used the medium compound. In the first part of the race, before anyone had stopped in the pits, Hamilton continued, lap after lap to set the quickest time and speed.

Like all road-and-street-course races, this one was about track position from its earliest moments. And it was also about tyre degradation. “My rear tyres are really struggling,” Verstappen said to his team 13 laps into the 58-tour contest. On the 14th lap, Verstappen gave up on his soft Pirellis and chose hard tyres for the Red Bull-Honda. A lap later Hamilton was in the pits and swapping mediums for hard Pirellis on his Mercedes-AMG.

With Red Bull’s Sergio Perez leading after both protagonists for the title pitted, he was told to keep Hamilton behind him. Which he did until the 21st lap, when both Hamilton and then teammate Verstappen passed the Mexican. And so it continued in mid-race with Hamilton in the lead, Verstappen second and all eyes on the front of this grid. Then, on the 36th lap everything changed.

With Antonio Giovinazzi stopped on-circuit at the ninth turn, and the second Alfa-Romeo out of the hunt after Kimi Raikkonen finished his final F1 race in the pits, the FIA called out the Virtual Safety Car and Verstappen headed for the pits. Hamilton did not, opting tor track position instead of new rubber. They were back racing two laps later, and at that point, Hamilton had 23 laps on his hard Pirellis; Verstappen had zero. Twenty laps remained in the season.

With ten to go Hamilton was working  his way through lap traffic while Verstappen was doing all he could to make up time and close in on the seven-time champion. By the 53rd lap and with five to go, the gap was 11.1 seconds and Hamilton’s tyres had 37 laps on them. Then everything changed – again – with Canadian Nicholas Latifi’s crash at the 14th corner. With so much debris on the Yas Marina circuit, the true Safety Car had to be deployed.

There were five cars between leader Hamilton and pursuer Verstappen when the Safety Car came out. Red Bull pitted both of its cars while Mercedes-Benz elected to keep Hamilton out on his aged Pirelli hard tyres. It was obvious Toto Wolff was gambling there would be no restart and that Michael Masi would not change the rules to allow those five lap cars to pass the Safety Car for the one-lap sprint to the checkers. He was wrong. With the two protagonists side by side for the single-lap dash, Verstappen got the lead on the fifth turn and, with his soft tyres just a couple of laps sat caution speed old, he sprinted to the finish, with Hamilton unable to make a move.

While Verstappen has now earned 10 victories on the year and would have broken through had he and Hamilton mimicked the Senna/Prost and Schumacher/Hill debacles of the last century, and taken one another out, it was the actions of the teams in question – Red Bull and Mercedes-Benz AMG – that decided this title. With nothing to lose, Christian Horner ordered Verstappen to the pits, twice after his initial pit stop.

As for the lap cars that race control’s Michael Masi moved from between the two to in front of the pace vehicle, Masi’s actions may have been within the rules – M-B’s two protests were not upheld – but the poor taste Race Control’s actions left in the tastes of many might have hurt the sporting activities of Formula One, if not its marketing, which is likely why the race ended the way it did. And the results were not official until at least five hours had passed from the checkered flags.

“Firstly, a big congratulations to Max and his team,” Lewis Hamilton said post-race. “I think we did an amazing job this year, we worked so hard. We gave it everything, we never gave up and that’s the most important thing.” Draped in the flag of his country, The Netherlands, which had never had an F1 champion until now, Verstappen allowed himself tears as he accepted and gave hugs to all, especially his father Jos, Dr Helmut Marko and Christian Horner of Red Bull Racing. Honda celebrated its first title of this century. Its last driver’s championship came in 1991 with Ayrton Senna.

“It feels incredible to be World Champion and I couldn’t have asked for a more insane last race of the year. It was a bit of a rollercoaster, from not really having a chance of winning until the last lap,” Verstappen said. “Everything came together and we had to go for it. I kept saying to myself, I am just going to give it my all and I have until the end and that is what we did.”

Social media will dissect this race until next season and many want changes in Race Control. The decision to allow the five lap cars between leader Hamilton and pursuer Verstappen to be moved so that they didn’t impact the finish did exactly that: it impacted the finish. And the championship. There’s no way Mercedes and Toto Wolff will win their appeals upon appeals because it was Masi’s decision to make, and so the lap cars moved. This is what happened and we’ll have to abide by it.

About Anne Proffit 917 Articles
Anne Proffit traces her love of racing - in particular drag racing - to her childhood days in Philadelphia, where Atco Dragway, Englishtown and Maple Grove Raceway were destinations just made for her. As a diversion, she was the first editor of IMSA’s Arrow newsletter, and now writes about and photographs sports cars, Indy cars, Formula 1, MotoGP, NASCAR, Formula Drift, Red Bull Global Rallycross - in addition to her first love of NHRA drag racing. A specialty is a particular admiration for the people that build and tune drag racing engines.

5 Comments on Formula One’s Last 2021 Race Dissected

  1. It was a correct call and in a way undid the no call for leaving the track to gain advantage!! KARMA for punting the points leader off earlier in the season!!

  2. Great day for F1. Toto could have had Lewis in for fresh tires. Instead they didn’t to keep track position. That’s auto racing.

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