Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen at the USA GP, 2019
Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen at the USA GP, 2019 | (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

Formula 1 | F1 2021 | Abu Dhabi Grand Prix | Verstappen-Hamilton duel poised for epic desert finale

By Neil Leverett

  • Formula 1 season reaches climax this weekend at Yas Marina Circuit for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
  • After 21 races, both Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen are tied on 369.5 points
  • Hamilton stands on cusp of history of record-breaking eighth F1 crown on Sunday
ABU DHABI – Will Lewis Hamilton capture Formula 1 greatness, or can Max Verstappen seal his first title in this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix showdown?

 

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High noon in the desert

It has been the script nobody could have written: The 2021 Formula 1 season.

As the campaign concludes this weekend after 21 races, 9 months and many thousands of air miles across five continents, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is set for a fitting denouement to what has quite simply been one of the the great F1 seasons.

With the two main protagonists of one of sport’s true fables set to duel one final time – this season at least – Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton will step out from the desert shadows at Yas Marina Circuit like two old gunslingers from a Western.

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With the gloves now off after their latest altercation in Jeddah last time out, the stakes are higher than a Vegas roulette wheel.

Once more the traditional finale to any F1 season, this particular edition in Abu Dhabi is poised for a rather more epic final chapter.

 

The impossible scenario

After the thrills, weekly adrenaline bursts, paddock battles, tarmac tussles and more than a hint of controversy throughout the calendar year, the remarkable statistic remains that the title race is back to where it was on Day 1 in Melbourne.

With just one race to go to the backdrop of one of the jewels of the desert, both Hamilton and Verstappen are tied on 369.5 points apiece.

Not so remarkable that two drivers be locked together in the standings ahead of the final race, no, but the last time that happened was back in 1974.

That year, Emerson Fittipaldi and Clay Regazzoni went head-to-head at Watkins Glen in the New York when on that occasion, the Brazilian won the title by four points.

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That was however, before the turbo-hybrid era. The vintage days of F1 were restricted to 15 races per season and a sheer plethora of external and interior factors were not at play as they are here.

So just how two drivers from two different teams, of differing age and varying experience, against arguably the strongest and most talented grid in recent memory for competition, have not even a single point separating them, is something phenomenal.

 

Can Hamilton seize history?

In one corner then, sits the seven-time champ, looking to seal a fifth-straight crown but most importantly a magic eighth year on the throne, overtaking Michael Schumacher, to venture out alone onto his own motorsport plain.

Having been up against it for large swathes of the season, the 36-year-old from Stevenage has been in tune with his Mercedes W12 of late and at just the right time, having won three on the bounce in Brazil, Qatar and of course last weekend’s exhaustive trip to Jeddah.

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With the F1 world still attempting to digest last Sunday’s incredible and inaugural Saudi Arabian GP, a fourth-successive win and his sixth in the UAE would be Hamilton’s crowing achievement in a glittering and often record-shattering career.

The underdog, having clawed his way back from an ominous points deficit three races back, the Briton has once more shown the same scrapping qualities that – like him or not – make Hamilton an F1 legend.

Should he take the chequered flag at Yas Marina, it may be hard to argue he is not the very best.

 

Will Bottas have final say?

This weekend will not only signal the final act of the season, but also of Valtteri Bottas‘ time with Mercedes, as the Finn walks off into the arms of Alfa Romeo from next term.

Calling time on five years of dominance with the Silver Arrows, could the man who has played the doting team player for Toto Wolff have one more closing part to play?

Having taken the podium top spot just once this term in Turkey, Bottas has seen Hamilton-Verstappen 1-2s since Austin and only two finishes of P3 or better have come his way in seven races.

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Yet, the Finn’s position in this most delicate of title climaxes is pivotal.

Mercedes have had the pace to rival Red Bull since Interlagos, and if Bottas can once more be Hamilton’s ally, those in high places will be sure to make sure Bottas’ departure is not met without significant incentive.

There is also the rather devilish plot twist that Bottas also lingers as the loose cannon in mix; after a season of no less than four retirements could a fifth involve Hamilton?

It would certainly be one way to go out with a bang.

 

‘Everything to win’

As emotions again ran high in Saudi Arabia last weekend, in the opinion of Hamilton at least, the feeling was that lines were crossed.

That being said, Verstappen is not going away lightly and will fight tooth and nail to deny his rival and claim his own first F1 title in the desert.

Few have taken Hamilton to the limit, and though his methods may not have won him many fans, the best drivers in history have shown the necessary ruthless edge when needed.

That same raw nature all F1 winners have possessed will be on display here, and as Verstappen told F1.com, both he and Hamilton will do what is required to get the job done in Abu Dhabi:

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“You know, we are both here to win and we will do everything to win, and win the championship ultimately – whatever of course is necessary in terms of points.

“I think we have raced really well together the whole year, I think we put on a great show for everyone at the end of the day, so hopefully of course we can do the same here.”

 

Just what will be sacrificed to do so, remains to be seen.

 

Fear of controversy lingers

Those comments ring loud and clear: Abu Dhabi will indeed see both men take the fight to the edge.

But which, after a season littered by questionable calls by both driver and F1 officials, threaten to have another and more decisive say this weekend.

Though perched on the same points tally, should Verstappen and Hamilton both fail to score at Yas Marina, it is the Dutchman who will be crowned champion for the first time, courtesy of one more race win this season (his nine to Hamilton’s eight).

Presented with such a picture, memories of battles of the past echo vividly, not only of Michael Schumacher’s 1997 disqualification from the title battle, but also of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost‘s infamous wipeout at Suzuka in 1990.

 

Winding back the clock over three decades ago, Senna would win the title should neither man finish in Japan and sure enough after many had predicted an early incident, the Brazilian and Frenchman clipped wheels at the first corner and slid into the gravel trap, both retiring.

As Murray Walker famously uttered: “well that is amazing but I fear…predictable”.

With relations having soured between the two lead men here in Hamilton and Verstappen, are we looking at a repeat?

Precedent is in place now to prevent that, but just how and in what form would race director Michael Masi and his team reach such decisions, given what is on the line?

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Put it this way, Masi is unlikely to be on the Christmas card list of either Red Bull or Mercedes when the paddock leaves Abu Dhabi.

 

In any event, the hope is that the title is won cleanly this weekend. But after a campaign laced with controversy and technical arbitration, given also the one-off shoot-out format in place, that seems far-fetched.

What is not in doubt however, is Abu Dhabi’s final act will, just like the 21 races that have preceded it, be utterly compelling.

 

The Formula 1 season concludes with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit this weekend.

 

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