Max Verstappen, Austrian Grand Prix 2018
Max Verstappen, Austrian Grand Prix 2018 | (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Formula 1 | F1 2021 | 5 things we learned from the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

By Neil Leverett

  • Max Verstappen wins Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to seal first World Drivers’ Championship
  • Dutchman takes chequered flag after controversial and dramatic conclusion to race
  • Mercedes fail in protest to overturn result after race director Michael Masi makes late safety car ruling
ABU DHABI – On the heels of Max Verstappen’s dramatic and controversial Formula 1 title win at Yas Marina, how do we process the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix?

 

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Verstappen ascends the F1 throne

When the synopsis of the 2021 Formula 1 campaign is written, after its extraordinary finish, it will surely now read ‘the greatest season’. Small squabbles aside however, the only fact that will matter to Max Verstappen are four words: ‘Formula 1 World champion’.

Just how he managed to snatch victory from the very jaws of defeat this weekend – facing a fourth race loss to Lewis Hamilton on the bounce no less – will be talked about for years and even decades to come, but just as earnestly, so too will be Verstappen finally climbing to the F1 summit.

Verstappen is a purebred; one of the biggest talents motor racing has seen in years. He was destined to win the F1 title at some point in his career, however, here, the Dutchman was on the receiving end of more than a dash of divine assistance – namely Nicholas Latifi.

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For some, having taken seven seasons to win what to others managed in a shorter time will be significant if he ever become a true F1 great, but Verstappen was a raw and immature driver in his early F1 days. Now he is different, more rounded competitor.

It is those facets he has not only called upon but honed to a greater degree this term, now having dethroned Hamilton from his four-year perch.

The debate of the final stanza of the season will be debated and for many a year. Did Verstappen deserve to win the title in 2021? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But what is now irrefutable, is that Max is for the moment at least, the man.

 

A conclusion difficult to swallow

Somehow.

If we consider just what had preceded in this season’s most remarkable of Formula 1 seasons, from one perspective, the conclusion to Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix showdown was perfectly fitting.

But from another, far larger and wider viewpoint, it was as incomprehensible as it was difficult to stomach.

With not a single point parting Hamilton and Verstappen before the race, it was the Briton who usurped his pretender to the throne in Verstappen at lights out in Abu Dhabi, but the duo were again soon to tangle once more, as Hamilton was pushed off the track after Verstappen made a late move to snatch the lead back at Turn 6.

Forced to hand back his accrued advantage, Hamilton though, opened up an advantage due to greater degradation of Verstappen’s tyres, seeing the Dutchman box first, as swiftly Hamilton followed suit.

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With Hamilton four seconds ahead by by the midpoint of the race, retirement from Antonio Giovinazzi then allowed Verstappen a free change of wheels after the first appearance of the safety car, as Hamilton remained out to hold track position.

With around 18 laps to run, Verstappen was closing on Hamilton with newer tyres, but not a rate needed to overhaul his Mercedes foe.  With five more trips around Yas Marina’s circuit left, Hamilton looked to be cruising to history.

Then on Lap 53 however, the image of Latifi ploughing into the barriers will be etched for sometime into F1 fans’ collective minds, given what followed.

As the second safety car – by now the source of Mercedes’ horror since Jeddah – trundled out from the pits, Hamilton again stayed out without pitting, while Verstappen again went in for a further fresh set of the softest available tyres.

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After Verstappen’s stop, he retained second, but with the five cars of Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel between himself and Hamilton, the initial call to not allow lapped cars to overtake looked set to crown Hamilton the champion once more.

As the debris began to clear, Red Bull boss Christian Horner was in race director Michael Masi‘s ear as to why the lapped cars were not directed to overtake.

With the five cars in question having overtaken the pack, the safety car returned to the pits with Masi having then dramatically reversed his decision to allow one final lap of ‘green light’ racing to determine the race, keen not to end the season behind under a technicality.

As Verstappen prowled behind Hamilton like a uncaged lion, the seven-time was a sitting duck.

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With Verstappen on the fresher tires to the Briton’s now worn treads, Hamilton’s efforts to hold the Red Bull man at bay were forlorn. Passed at Turn 5, Hamilton had no pace or grip to pursue despite a vain attempt to counter.

As Verstappen romped away to the title, F1 fans, veteran, and those watching their first GP, watched the final lap conclude in a scarcely believable scenario.

After the shock had passed from what had been witnessed, amazement for many turned quickly to consternation.

 

Hamilton retains class amid chaos

Well in the end, it was always likely. Controversy always threatened to have too a big a say in the outcome of the title, but surely not in such a brutal and final manner?

A conclusion feared by many, Hamilton was left dumbstruck by the final throes of the GP, but to Hamilton’s immense credit was as class act and upheld the respect of a true great, even when the Stevenage driver must have been in utter devastation internally.

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Whilst all around him in the Mercedes garage were crying foul, Hamilton was left to contemplate what had befallen him but did so with the greatest character.

Others in a similar spot could have headed for the nearest exit, desperate to leave a situation so thrust upon them. But not Hamilton.

Instead, congratulating Verstappen on the podium, the Briton kept his calm demeanour. In a season where he has won many more fans for not only his continued hunger, perseverance and desire, his actions here would have earned him a boat-load more.

 

Kimi denied fitting send-off

Aside from the maelstrom that descended on Yas Marina and more particularly the FIA, the final race of Kimi Raikkonen‘s career in F1 had a similarly unsatisfactory outcome.

Stepping into the cockpit of his Alfa Romeo for the final time after 19 seasons in F1, the former Sauber, Lotus, Ferrari and McLaren driver’s enforced retirement – maybe with its own irony – on Lap 25 for brakes failure, was a sad departure for the 2007 champion.

Leaving F1 at the grand old age of 42, Raikkonen claimed 21 wins, 18 poles and 103 podiums during his illustrious career, often as an uncompromising figure in the paddock and never one to mince his words.

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Having only crept his way to double figures this term, Raikkonen has finished in the points just four times, with a best of P8 in Sochi and Mexico City.

Forced to end his final race abruptly, on realisation that Kimi was stationary in his car, the paddock rose to an ovation for the Finn and though not having been able to complete his final race, the era of Raikkonen will live long in F1.

 

Mercedes must move on

As the dust storm settles in the desert, Mercedes are left to lick their wounds.

Having played Sunday’s race to near-perfection, their game management after 57 laps unravelled spectacularly in one fell swoop, leaving boss Toto Wolff wracked with frustration and like an orange that had just visited the juicer.

Consoled having taken the Constructors’ crown for an eighth-successive campaign – holding onto the title after a relentless term from their Red Bull rivals – just how events evolved so rapidly against them will be a real sucker punch.

With Sunday’s dual race protests having been rejected, it appears to the casual observer at least, that a mistake in judgement was made, but ultimately, one down to the rather obtuse discretion of Masi and the FIA.

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It was a mistake that while having changed the destination of the title, was one that could not be altered.

Mercedes say they will take fight to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, it is surely a battle they cannot win. Though right to feel aggrieved, attempts to stick their heels in would only surely cause further frustration.

Injustice is probably not associated freely with F1 in recent times, but Mercedes and moreover Hamilton, have felt the full force of it but with barely three months to go until the battle for F1 supremacy again begins, Wolff and co. with surely be more motivated than ever, not least with the arrival of new regulations.

There can be no doubt Mercedes can feel they were wronged, but the focus has to be on next season.

 

No sooner will the paddock leave Abu Dhabi than attentions will turn to winter preparations back in the factory, pre-season testing in Barcelona and then a trip back to the Middle East in mid-March. It cannot come soon enough.

Not least, for Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton.

 

Formula 1 returns in 2022 for the new season, beginning with the Bahrain Grand Prix in Sakhir over the weekend of 18-20 March.