Right in the middle of facing unprecedented challenges from the outside world and just at the moment it most needed it, Formula 1 served up a truly epic season. It gave us the most successful driver in history challenged by his 13-year-younger heir apparent in an opposing team – from race one right to the final-round, equal-on-points showdown (the first time that had happened in 47 years).
Red Bull’s inability to provide a car fully competitive with Mercedes had for years been a frustration both for fans and F1 itself – given that Red Bull employed the apparent natural successor to Lewis Hamilton as F1’s standard bearer in Max Verstappen. Through the years of Mercedes/Hamilton domination it seemed more than feasible that Hamilton would break all records and retire without ever having faced a season-long challenge from his would-be usurper. It was shaping up like how we never got to see Jim Clark in his full pomp take on Stirling Moss. Or Ferrari-era Niki Lauda against Jackie Stewart. Or Michael Schumacher vs Ayrton Senna. Those pairings did race against each other of course but in all cases the old master was gone before the challenger was in a competitive enough situation to go head-to-head on equal terms.
On those few occasions over the years when the Red Bull was quick enough, there were some thrilling foretastes of how Hamilton vs Verstappen might look. Malaysia 2016 where Max ambushed Hamilton with an absolute dive-bomb into Turn 1 early in the race, Verstappen shrewdly judging that Hamilton – in the late stages of trying to win a championship – would yield. Hamilton referenced it one race later after fending off the Red Bull in Japan. He understood fully the scale of challenge Verstappen represented.
In China 2018, with Verstappen taking advantage of a late safety car to be on much newer tyres than the race-leading Hamilton, Max was hunting the champion down fast and was obviously going to overtake before the end, so big was his performance advantage. But Lewis played him. He left an inviting gap to the outside as they approached the medium-fast Turn 7, sensing that Verstappen’s full-on attack would trigger him to go for a move there rather than simply wait to do it somewhere easy – like with DRS into the hairpin. Verstappen indeed went for the outside and as he got alongside Hamilton had a – almost certainly induced – bit of oversteer which required Verstappen to take to the escape road, losing a certain victory. It was an unusual place to try an overtaking move, pondered Hamilton later… King of the pride still.
“Either was a worthy world champion. It’s a pity it was decided this way”
But he frankly admitted he didn’t really know how to deal with Verstappen’s aggression in close quarters. “I just always try to give him room,” he said in Mexico 2019, “because it’s the smartest thing to do. The chances of not having contact otherwise are small.”
He would find himself in that situation many times this season as Red Bull and Honda had combined to give Verstappen a car worthy of his ability. In fact it was quicker than the Mercedes initially and in the opening round at Bahrain we saw the template for the season as
Hamilton had to use a great deal of guile and judgement to steal a win from the up-and-at-’em Verstappen. This contest would endure to that theme throughout the season, but with Hamilton varying his game plan apparently according to the points situation as the technical impetus kept changing from one team to the other.
High drama and controversy. Who can forget the pair duking it out into Copse Corner lap 1 – stunning individual performances from each of them, the rest of the pack reduced to bit-part players in their ongoing duel. Hamilton’s comeback from last on the grid in Brazil’s sprint race to victory in the main event was the beginning of a late comeback just as it was looking like Verstappen had the momentum that would see him prevail.
That this should all unfold just as F1 was getting a bigger hold in the wider world through the Netflix effect and social media brought a whole new dynamic to the sport, the beginning of the next stage of its evolution. For good or ill, it was significant.
It was this combination of thrills and significance which made F1 in 2021 the equivalent of 1982 and 2006 all rolled into one. The former had the volatility of this season and a bigger spread of potential winners, the latter had the more focused ‘best two drivers take each other on in opposing teams and equal cars’ as well as the old guard versus new which has made this season so compelling. The contrast in styles between how Verstappen and Hamilton raced was in itself fascinating. As previously stated, there was the way Hamilton adapted according to his points position. For Verstappen everything was much simpler in the black and white way things often are in youth. Hamilton, with so much depth of experience in life and the race track, had a more rounded perspective but still the heart of a racer.
They are both staggeringly good at what they do and either one of them was a worthy world champion. It’s such a pity it was decided the way it was… And I’d be saying exactly that if Michael Masi’s call had been made with Verstappen in front on old tyres and Hamilton behind him on fresh softs.