Abu Dhabi served up one of the most dramatic ends to a season in Formula 1 history as Max Verstappen passed Lewis Hamilton on the last lap to become champion.
In a controversial finish that caused confusion among drivers and frustration among fans, Verstappen capitalised on a late restart following the safety car to overtake Hamilton for the lead and deny him an eighth title.
It was a fitting end for an F1 season that has produced plenty of controversy both on- and off-track, but one that leaves questions unanswered heading into the winter break.
Here are 10 things we learned from the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2nd position, on the podium
Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images
1. The finish left F1 drivers confused and fans rightly frustrated (by Luke Smith)
When Nicholas Latifi crashed out at Turn 14 and the safety car was deployed with six laps remaining, it was obvious that it would turn the race on its head and give one final twist to the championship.
But nobody could have predicted the decisions that followed, nor the backlash. Race director Michael Masi’s decision to not let lapped cars unlap themselves, then change his mind and give the call for five of the eight lapped cars to go through has been at the centre of the restart controversy that has become the dominant story since the chequered flag fell.
Mercedes quickly launched two protests, claiming the FIA had not followed its own regulations by restarting the race when it did, but these were thrown out by the stewards. Mercedes has until Thursday evening to decide if it will formalise an appeal of the ruling, but Toto Wolff’s exasperated radio calls to Masi told the full story. Clearly, the team feels Hamilton has been denied a title that he deserved.
There was confusion throughout the grid about the restart. Lando Norris said it was “obviously made to be a fight” and was “for the TV of course”, while Ferrari drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr called it “weird” and “very strange” – as only the cars between Hamilton and Verstappen on-track had been given the call to unlap themselves, setting up that last-lap shootout.
As thrilling as their side-by-side moments were, it was only ever going to end one way given Verstappen’s huge tyre advantage. Safety cars can happen and change races, but race control’s handling of it is coming firmly into the spotlight. Fans – particularly many newcomers – felt they were cheated out of a rightful end to the race, and while Masi argued in the hearing there has always been a desire to get in green flag running to end races where possible, there are many unanswered questions about the process.
Mercedes, drivers and fans alike will want answers about the decisions, because from the outside, the lack of clarity sours the end to what has been a classic F1 season.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2nd position, congratulates Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 1st position, in Parc Ferme
Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images
2. Both Hamilton and Verstappen were deserving of the title (by Pablo Elizalde)
Some have compared this year’s championship fight to the 2016 title battle between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg ultimately won by the German. While that season had several flashes of drama – including their crash in Spain and a fraught Abu Dhabi finale – the tension this year lasted from the first lap of the first race to the final lap of the season finale. That meant that both Hamilton and Verstappen needed to be in top form all year long, and both delivered in a way that put them miles apart from the rest of the field.
Their on-track clashes were probably inevitable given how closely-matched they were all season, but that shouldn’t detract from the fact that they pushed each other to the very limit of their abilities on a regular basis. Both raised to the challenge when the odds appeared to be in their rival’s favour, and more than once victory went to the underdog.
There were periods when the Red Bull looked like the car to beat and Verstappen made perfect use of it, but the way Mercedes reacted late in the season evened out the technical advantage either of the challengers had throughout the season.
The Abu Dhabi GP – as controversial as it was – was a perfect example of how neither Verstappen nor Hamilton deserved to lose and, in the end, it was factors outside of their control that settled the score in favour of the Dutchman in a season that will live in fans’ memories for decades to come.
The Safety Car Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521, the rest of the field
Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images
3. Protests and appeals are not how we wanted the F1 season to end (PE)
F1 is not as popular as it is exclusively thanks to its on-track drama, or its technology, or the fastest cars on Earth, or the characters that the adoring supporters admire. Even the most purist of fans have to admit that.
The off-track controversies have always been an integral part of the show and the subject of debates that polarise the audience, especially since the internet and social media entered our lives. It would be extremely naive to believe that F1 could have attracted as much attention as it has this year purely thanks to events happening on-track.
But the intensity of the fight for the title has meant the stewards – and race director Masi in particular – have been in the spotlight more often than anyone would have desired. None of the protagonists wanted a season finale overshadowed by controversy and, while some did expect a clash between Hamilton and Verstappen, no one could have predicted the way the race ended.
A frustrated Mercedes was entitled to protest the controversial restart decision that decided the championship. Red Bull would likely have done the same had the positions been reversed.
Both Mercedes and Red Bull said before the weekend that they wanted to win the title the right way. In reality, they should have said they preferred to win the right way, but that they would do whatever it took to win it if Masi and the regulations left the door open.
Now it’s time for F1 bosses to do something about it, learn lessons for the Abu Dhabi mistakes, and make sure that at least a scenario like the one so many people were left regretting doesn’t happen again.
Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12 battle for track position with Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B
Photo by: Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool
4. Without Perez, Verstappen may not have won the championship (LS)
A post circulating on Twitter after the race showed someone had updated the Mexican defence minister’s Wikipedia page to read “Sergio Perez” after his superb battle against Hamilton in the race.
Verstappen’s chances of winning looked slim after the first round of stops as Hamilton managed to pull clear, but Red Bull had an ace up its sleeve. The decision to keep Perez out long meant he could be used as a blockade against Hamilton – something he did to enormous effect to help sway the race result.
- The factors that enabled Verstappen’s Abu Dhabi triumph
Hamilton called Perez’s defence “dangerous” on the radio, but it was a perfect display of hard but fair racing. To have slowed Hamilton down by seven seconds in a single lap was no mean feat, particularly after initially being passed with DRS, and was a great display of teamwork that allowed Verstappen to close to within a second of Hamilton at the front.
Verstappen called Perez a “legend” on the radio during the race, and said after clinching the championship that he wouldn’t have done so without gaining so much time.
“I wouldn’t be sitting here right now,” Verstappen said in the champion’s press conference. “They would have had a pit gap with the safety car and stuff, so definitely Checo was driving incredible today.”
Perez’s first season with Red Bull had its ups and downs, but to finish with the ultimate assist – helping your team-mate become world champion – was a great way to finish things off.
Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari, 3rd position, lifts his trophy
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images
5. Sainz finished his season strong to grab P5 in the championship (by Megan White)
Snatching third place from a late-retiring Perez after running high up the order all race long secured Carlos Sainz Jr fifth place in the drivers’ championship, pipping both team-mate Charles Leclerc and McLaren’s Lando Norris to the spot.
Sainz just about held on to third place after Yuki Tsunoda’s late charge on fresh tyres, and the result continued his peculiar record of podiums where bigger stories tend to overshadow him. Sainz was dismissed after just a couple of minutes in the press conference as the media waited to speak to new champion Verstappen.
The result was a fitting end to a successful first season at Ferrari and marked his highest ever finish in the F1 drivers’ standings, having placed sixth in both his seasons at McLaren alongside Norris. Consistency was key, having scored at every race since the French Grand Prix to help Ferrari to third in the teams’ championship.
“We signed with him because we said he is a good racer, consistent, always scoring good points,” said Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto.
“But I think he’s also a good learner, because during the season, he has improved, and I think that the end of the season is his best part of the entire season itself.”
Kimi Raikkonen, Alfa Romeo Racing C41
Photo by: Alfa Romeo
6. A number of important eras ended quietly in Abu Dhabi (MW)
Not with a bang, but a whimper – so ended the Formula 1 career of one of the series’ most loved drivers.
Kimi Raikkonen made his 349th and final F1 appearance on Sunday, but it all ended abruptly after he was forced to retire on lap 25 due to an issue on his left-rear wheel that caused him to spin off-track into the barriers.
It ended a weekend of hype around the 2007 world champion’s last F1 race, not that he bought into it much. His family were on the grid before the race, and all of his crew members wore special t-shirts. But as he said in his final written media pen interview after the race: “I’m looking forward to a normal life now.”
It wasn’t the only farewell of the weekend that ended with a DNF. George Russell limped back to the pits one lap after Raikkonen when a visor tear-off got stuck in a cooling duct, forcing him to retire in his final Williams appearance ahead of his move to Mercedes.
Russell will replace Valtteri Bottas, who marked the end of his Mercedes era by finishing sixth, helping the team to win the constructors’ championship for the fifth year in a row. He’ll make his first appearance for Alfa Romeo this week in testing.
Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B
Photo by: Erik Junius
7. Abu Dhabi’s track changes helped, but needed to go further (by Haydn Cobb)
The Yas Marina Circuit underwent major track alterations ahead of last weekend’s race, primary motivated by providing better racing with a fast and flowing layout.
The circuit tweaks were given a positive backing overall by drivers after Friday practice but proof would delivered on Sunday, and in truth it was a mixed bag. Turn 5 was the big winner – just ask Verstappen – while Turn 9 impressed visually but undid an overtaking opportunity at the end of the second back straight.
While the final section at Turns 13 and 14 gave drivers more chance to attack the corners, as Raikkonen found out to his detriment with a spin into the wall in FP2 while Nicholas Latifi inadvertently turned the race on its head by crashing in the closing stages, it still acted as a single-file snake of tarmac.
“I think it is interesting for the high speed Turn 9 definitely and for a longer straight into Turn 5, but I am not so sure about Turn 13 and 14, the off-camber corner,” Esteban Ocon said.
“I would prefer it with camber because as soon as you have a car in front, you literally lose three-tenths. That is what I have been losing since the beginning of the weekend, so it is a huge amount of lap time. If they camber the corner, it would probably be different.”
Bottas added: “Turn 5 and Turn 9 are definitely better than what they used to be. But the issue on this track is still around the hotel, I always lost a few tenths over there so that was tricky. A bit better, but still difficult track to overtake.
“That last sector is quite flowing corners and there’s only one line that you can take, so I think that’s more the issue. But hopefully next with the different cars it’s going to be OK.”
The Finn has raised a good point. With the 2022 F1 cars designed to create closer racing, it should go hand-in-hand with the Yas Marina revisions to deliver a circuit layout fit for a season finale.
The race winners trophy is pictured in front of a pitboard for 2021 F1 World Drivers Champion Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing
Photo by: Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool
8. To Verstappen, any future success is a bonus after his title win (HC)
“My life will not change now. I’m of course very happy that I won the championship. That’s the final achievement that I wanted in Formula 1, so everything else that comes now is a bonus.”
That’s how Verstappen responded when asked about how his life will change as a F1 world champion. He’s probably right.
As the son of an F1 driver (Jos Verstappen raced for an array of teams with middling success between 1994 and 2003) and a life built around racing, the 24-year-old’s world and everyday tasks won’t change, just now he’ll be introduced as a reigning F1 world champion rather than a future one.
Sure, the title celebrations will stretch out over the next few weeks after a gruelling 22-race campaign and Verstappen, like the rest of the F1 drivers, will take time to relax, reflect and recharge ahead of the 2022 season – which starts in a couple of months, when you factor in pre-season testing.
But by February it’ll be back to the everyday grind for the Dutch driver, planning how to defend his crown – with the #1 on his car – while getting up to speed with the all-new F1 cars and regulations.
Verstappen’s “final achievement” comment is intriguing, almost from Rosberg’s script when he stunned the world by retiring just days after sealing the 2016 title. But there’s little chance of the Red Bull driver hanging up his helmet yet, given both his age and mentality.
Time is on his side to become one of the greatest ever, with multiple titles the “bonus” he’ll target. It’ll be fascinating to watch how it unfolds in the years to come.
Alpine 2022 F1 car
Photo by: Alpine
9. The 2022 rule reset will have all teams dreaming big… (by Filip Cleeren)
With the 2021 F1 season done and dusted, attention can now exclusively shift to 2022 when F1 is introducing its biggest rules overhaul since the advent of hybrid power, and arguably even since 2009’s chassis and aero revamp.
Next year’s new regulation package was originally intended for this season, which means teams have had plenty of lead time to prepare. Just about every outfit soon shifted focus to developing next year’s challenger, instead of pouring more resources into a 2021 car that was itself largely a carryover from 2020.
We are now entering an exciting honeymoon period during which every team still believes it is doing the right things to be successful when the cards are reshuffled in March. For all we know, at this point in time anyone can still aspire to come up with the best car.
Naturally, there is no reason to suspect 2021 title rivals Mercedes and Red Bull have lost sight of the big picture and have not done their homework for next year. They were the two best performers over the last two seasons, so they are as likely as anyone to interpret the new rules to their advantage.
But behind them several teams are dreaming big to finally close the gap with the big boys. After a rough patch, Ferrari has enjoyed something of a resurgence. McLaren and Alpine are also making the right noises, both teams having won a slightly fortuitous yet merited grand prix in 2021. And while Aston Martin was the standout disappointment of 2021, Lawrence Stroll has invested heavily in headhunting some of Mercedes’ and Red Bull’s finest engineers.
AlphaTauri has also shown its efficient approach can pay dividends if it gets its initial car design right. Time will tell if Alfa Romeo – which will be reinforced by Bottas – Williams and Haas will be able to keep up, but all will take fresh confidence into the new regulation cycle.
Sunset in th pitlane
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
10. … But F1 needs a break after its longest season yet (FC)
But before we get to 2022, it’s time for a break. The gruelling 2021 race calendar with an unprecedented 22 races has wreaked havoc on the F1 paddock at large, including team crews, officials, media and other travelling members of Liberty Media’s flying circus. A moniker which can be read several ways after the events of the past two races…
Confused F1 race staff will land at home over the coming days to discover that Christmas suddenly looms next week, an urgent prompt to unwind and repair whatever is left of social and family life.
While Red Bull can now celebrate, Mercedes finds itself on the other side of the decompression slope, and its crew will have to physically and mentally reset before it gets to seek revenge with renewed vigour.
Quite frankly, the fans would do well to get a break from Formula 1, too. After simmering for the first half of the season tensions during the Verstappen-Hamilton campaign reached a boiled point after the summer, and ever since the hot mess – some of it instigated by the protagonists themselves – has continued to spill over on various social media platforms.
The partisan following on both sides has intoxicated the debate on the rights and wrongs of how the 2021 season unfolded, and the season couldn’t have ended soon enough for things to finally start cooling down before we head into the new year.
Oh, and about that next season? Winter testing kicks off in Barcelona … in 72 days. Bahrain’s season-opener of F1’s new era follows in just 97 days from now.
After all that the sport has been through these past nine months, it’s most certainly time for a break.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, waves from the grid after Qualifying
Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images