The 2021 Formula 1 season is over at last – but this seems like one of those seasons whose memories will not go away any time soon. The season-ending Abu Dhabi GP saw to that!
What looked set to be Lewis Hamilton’s eighth coronation ended up becoming Max Verstappen’s maiden world championship win. Not even two appeals from Mercedes could change that.
But why did Mercedes appeal? Well, the controversy surrounding the Safety Car restart on the final lap would be the answer – especially since it contravenes existing regulations.
Yet as things stand, Verstappen is the world champion. And Hamilton, hard as he fought, is on the losing end of a title battle for the first time since 2016.
Still, that doesn’t mean the result is a cut-and-dry one. There is a lot to talk about, not only based on how the race ended but also how it went. And that is exactly what we are going to do here.
So let us now take a look at the major talking points from a chaotic, controversial yet memorable Abu Dhabi GP.
First things first, let’s get the obvious out of the way: this was Formula 1’s best title battle in years. It had all the makings of a classic fight: the established giant vs. the man many deem to be his successor, both in more or less equal machinery. And with both drivers possessing the single-minded determination to be nothing but the best.
Not since 2016 has Hamilton been tested at this level; with all due respect to Sebastian Vettel, his title challenges in 2017 and 2018 faded almost as much due to his own errors as it did to Hamilton’s relentlessness. And don’t even get started on 2019 and 2020, two years in which Hamilton had the title in the bag before a race was even contested.
But this year was different. The battle was a thrilling, to-and-fro affair that saw both emerge as worthy title contenders. In the end, whosoever won or lost would do so only by the smallest of margins. And that is exactly what happened in this case.
That being said, let’s get the obvious out of the way: the ruling to let only four lapped cars pass the Safety Car in order to ensure a straight shootout should never have happened. The main reason being it goes against the very sporting regulations under which Formula 1 must operate.
The rules state that all lapped cars must unlap themselves when the incident is clear, and that the Safety Car will enter the lap in the following lap. Of course, if that was to happen at Abu Dhabi, then the race would have ended behind a Safety Car. And no one wanted that, hence the last lap hodge-pogde we were served up with instead.
Once again, ineffective stewarding and a lack of consistency with regards to what rules were applied in which way directly impacted the race. And, as great as 2021 was for the sport, this is something that requires more clarity for the future. As things stand, there is no real implementation of the rules.
George Russell, who will be a Mercedes driver next season, tweeted “THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE!!!!” right after the race. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what he meant. Lando Norris said the final lap finish was done “for TV”. His teammate Daniel Ricciardo said he doesn’t “know what to make of it”.
The real question is, of course, will this be how things work in the future? There’s no doubting the fact that the finale made for thrilling TV. But was it the right precedent to set; given it doesn’t actually fall within the purview of what the sporting regulations say?
It’s the type of soup F1’s stewards and much-maligned race director Michael Masi have often found themselves in. In a bid to ensure minimum regulation to adhere to the “let them race” policy, they’ve somehow managed to over-regulate the sport – while also making things up as they go.
This might seem like hyperbole given it’s only been a season that Mercedes and Red Bull have been in direct competition. But the nature of their 2021 title fight was such that it is easy to see these two as being the two most direct rivals even with the new regulations coming up.
Both teams have their similarities in certain ways. Both are relative newcomers to F1; Red Bull came into the picture in 2005, Mercedes 5 years later. Both have dominated the sport in recent years. And both are well-oiled machines flanked with top drivers.
To top it off, the teams already share a healthy dislike for each other. Christian Horner and Toto Wolff have been at odds all season; other team members have also not been keen to hide their disdain. It should make for good viewing, if little else.
Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz marked the final race of the season with a third-place finish. Given the drama up front, it was easy to forget that this was Sainz’s fourth podium of the season in what has been a strong debut season for him at the Maranello-based team.
The result also saw Sainz secure P5 in the driver’s championship, making him the “best of the rest” outside the Mercedes and Red Bull cars. That is doubly impressive given Ferrari, while clearly the third-fastest car on the grid, could not consistently match either of the two frontrunners.
Sainz is someone not typically spoken off as a champion in the waiting. However, he has outperformed Charles Leclerc in his first season in the team. If Ferrari get their car right for next year, who knows? Maybe Sainz could be in contention to steal the throne from his former Toro Rosso teammate.