A Middle Eastern three-race flourish to this most astonishingly closely fought championship – with the outcome decided on the last lap of the last race, just as in 2008, but this time in rather more controversial circumstances.
The competitive breakthrough made by Mercedes in Brazil carried through into the first ever Qatar Grand Prix, run around the Losail Moto GP circuit. The drivers loved its fast, interconnected sweeps but Lewis Hamilton loved it maybe best of all as the Mercedes remained in that lovely sweet spot he and the team had found in Interlagos and he put it on pole by 0.4sec. Inevitably his closest rival was Max Verstappen, but the Red Bull-Honda was struggling a little with the emphasis the track placed upon the front end. The nature of some of the corners put the front tyres under combined braking and lateral load, which always places particular stress on the Pirellis – and the Mercedes is invariably able to load up the front end better. The Red Bull’s balance wasn’t improved when the team was forced to fit the higher downforce of the rear wings it brought, as the alternative was afflicted with a DRS flap fluttering, the hydraulic actuator unable to apply the necessary pressure to keep the flap open.
Verstappen was penalised five places from his second-fastest time for not slowing for double-waved yellow flags (see Tactics). But he was up to second within four laps, his progress in sharp contrast to that of Valtteri Bottas, who completed the opening lap 11th from his sixth place penalised grid slot. Sergio Pérez had failed to make Q3 in the second Red Bull and was only a couple of places ahead of Bottas at the end of lap 1. So Hamilton and Verstappen were out on their own, with no support available from the second team cars. Hamilton was in control throughout, Verstappen never with the front tyre life to be able to push into the gap the leader established in the first few laps. It was probably the most routine grand prix of the season, enlivened a little by a spate of front-left tyre failures from those – notably Bottas – trying to run a long first stint. Pérez had made an early first stop but was intending on running through to the end and had been on-course to be fighting for third when the Bottas tyre failure spooked Red Bull into bringing him in for a precautionary second stop. He made it back up to fourth by the end but ran out of time in closing the gap to the Alpine of Fernando Alonso, who thus took his first podium in seven years after a typically feisty and tenacious performance.
The first Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was held under floodlights around both a highly distinctive and very fast street circuit which approximated the narrowness of Monaco and the speed of Monza. A series of very fast, wall-lined bends and flat-out kinks linked by a couple of hairpins made for a truly spectacular challenge, albeit a rather hazardous one as the sightlines of the corner exits were inappropriate to the speeds being reached. It would have been very easy for a flat-out car to have ploughed into a slow-moving one and there were a few near misses through the weekend. F1 got away with it though, and the venue hosted a race which would have gone down as the most controversial of the season – if it hadn’t been for what happened just a week later…
Verstappen had been on-course to set a truly spectacular pole position but lost control of the car on the last corner and hit the wall, leaving him only third on the grid, with the Mercedes pair locking out the front row. Hamilton’s pole time averaged 155mph.
The first 10 laps of the race were quite routine as Hamilton led, gradually pulling away from Bottas and Verstappen. A safety car for a lap 10 Mick Schumacher crash reset things, as the Mercs came in to change tyres and Verstappen stayed out. When the safety car was supplanted by a red flag to repair the barrier, Verstappen got his tyre change for free and would be on pole for the restart. Hamilton out-dragged the Red Bull but Verstappen re-passed by using the Turn 1 run-off area and would have been instructed to give the place back if there had not almost immediately been another red flag. Pérez and Leclerc had touched, spinning the Red Bull broadside across the track, triggering a concertina-effect accident at the back, as Nikita Mazepin’s Haas rear-ended George Russell’s Williams. For the second re-start race director Michael Masi – we’ll be hearing more of him in later paragraphs – suggested that Red Bull have Verstappen start from third as penalty for having passed off track (Esteban Ocon had overtaken the Verstappen-compromised Hamilton and would therefore be starting from pole).
To counter the grid drop, Red Bull opted to fit Verstappen with medium tyres rather than the hards of almost everyone else, for maximum traction off the line, albeit at the expense of durability. From the second row Verstappen was indeed faster off the line and was down the inside of both Ocon and Hamilton and into the lead by Turn 1. Once Hamilton had DRS’d his way past Ocon at the end of the opening lap, it was a very familiar 2021 scenario of the two title contenders pulling far away from everyone else.
Eventually Verstappen began paying the price for the choice of the medium tyres and Hamilton on the more durable hards began coming back at him. Hamilton got a slipstreaming run to the DRS line and with the DRS then overtook on the pit straight. But Verstappen wasn’t having it and threw his car down the inside so late that there was really no chance of making the corner. He snap-oversteered himself onto the run-off but ensured Hamilton came with him and rejoined the track leading once more.
With his eight-point lead coming into this penultimate race, Verstappen would be closer to the title by beating Hamilton, or by neither of them finishing – and he was certainly being far less cautious wheel-to-wheel than Hamilton. He was obliged to hand the place back but was guided by his team to “do it strategically”. He understood what this meant and in response he slowed to a crawl just before the DRS detection line for the pit straight, clearly trying to induce Hamilton into passing at a place where he could then get DRS on the Mercedes to re-pass it. Hamilton arrived on the scene and clearly understood what Verstappen was trying to do and slowed in response. With the line coming up and Hamilton not accepting the invitation, Verstappen moved across the track just as Hamilton was moving the same way and stood on the brakes at 2.4g. Hamilton hit the back of the Red Bull as he steered hard left in avoidance, damaging the Merc’s wing, but remarkably it was still intact.
Verstappen sprinted away, anticipating a penalty and trying to get the gap out to at least 5sec – but he was unable to as Hamilton’s hard-tyred pace was just too much and he was soon enough right back on the Red Bull’s tail. Verstappen handed the place back at Turn 23, taking the slipstream and immediately re-passing into Turn 24. Using the tow of the car you’ve just let by to re-pass into the next corner is not considered valid and the race director wasn’t wearing it, informing the team he needed to hand it back legitimately. Masi then handed the matter over to the stewards. They imposed a 5sec penalty just as Hamilton was going down the inside into the final corner. Hamilton pulled away to his third consecutive victory and Verstappen was penalised a further 10sec for his earlier erratic driving before the DRS line, though even with the penalties he was still comfortably second. Afterwards Hamilton looked mentally exhausted at having spent the evening trying to stay out of physical contact range of his rival. The result put the title contenders on equal points going into the finale, the first time that had happened since Watkins Glen 1974 with Emerson Fittipaldi and Clay Regazzoni.
That was the highly charged backdrop to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Whichever of them beat the other in this race was champion. If neither finished, Verstappen would be champion on account of having won nine races to Hamilton’s eight. Those numbers carried implicit threat of a less-than-clean race. Turned out, that’s not where the controversy arose. On this occasion Verstappen was able to complete a stunner of a qualifying lap to set pole over 0.4sec faster than Hamilton. This was against the run of play. The Mercedes had been handily faster through the practices and Q1. In the race-tyre-defining Q2 the Mercs qualified on the medium, Verstappen flat-spotted on his only set and ended up having to qualify on the faster but less durable soft. But into Q3 as dusk turned to night and the track cooled and gripped up, the Mercedes – with its right-rear-protecting set up for the race – was all understeer and the skinny-winged Red Bull was in a beautiful place of balance for the first time all weekend. Verstappen did the rest – and it was incredible to behold through the twists of sector 3 where most of the time was gained. A tow from Pérez up the back straight had found him an extra couple of tenths, too.
Despite Verstappen’s softer starting tyres it was Hamilton who burst into the lead from the start, Verstappen hard in his wake. The tyre difference actually played out under braking for the Turn 6-7 chicane later in the lap as Hamilton, his mediums still not fully up to temperature, was early on the brakes and Verstappen took immediate advantage, throwing his car down the inside and passing within the white lines. Hamilton had to steer onto the run-off to avoid contact and rejoined in the lead. “He must give the place back,” radioed Verstappen. The stewards disagreed. No further investigation necessary.
It would have been interesting to see how the race might have panned out with Verstappen leading – because the Mercedes was definitely faster on the night than the Red Bull, the skinny wing of which was giving the rear tyres a harder time. Here again was the race day price for the qualifying balance and Hamilton was able to drive away and leave Verstappen far behind. They changed onto hard tyres early, just a lap apart, leaving the yet-to-stop Pérez leading.
As Hamilton quickly caught him, Pérez knew his role here was to delay the Mercedes as long as possible, giving Verstappen the chance to reduce what had built into an 8sec deficit. He did so perfectly. With Hamilton very wary about getting too close wheel-to-wheel and Pérez prepared to put his car into the smallest of gaps, they passed and re-passed several times, with Pérez backing off through the twists of sector 3. This played out over two laps and by the time Hamilton finally put the decisive move on Pérez, Verstappen was just 2sec behind Hamilton! But it was just a sideshow; Hamilton was able to build up the gap all over again quite comfortably.
A VSC for Antonio Giovinazzi’s broken down Alfa Romeo (the other car of Kimi Räikkönen, in his final grand prix, had already suffered a brake failure and been retired) allowed Red Bull to pit Verstappen for a fresh set of hards. He rejoined 16sec behind Hamilton and although he was lapping quicker, it was by nowhere near enough to be close. Then with six laps to go a randomising event intervened to turn the whole contest on its head: Nicholas Latifi crashed his Williams on the exit of Turn 15, triggering a safety car.
This presented a horrible dilemma to Hamilton and Mercedes: to pit or stay out. Whatever they did, Verstappen would be sure to do the opposite. Which was the right move would largely depend upon whether the scene could be cleared up in time for racing to get underway again or whether it would end under the safety car. Mercedes chose to leave Hamilton out on his 38-lap old hard tyres, Verstappen pitted for a new set of softs. If the race did get underway, Mercedes took solace from the fact that there were five lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen in the queue behind the safety car. The laps ticked by and then a message was relayed to the teams that lapped cars would not be allowed to unlap themselves. This is at the race director’s discretion and Masi was anxious not to have the race end under the safety car and so needed to save time. If the cars unlapped themselves and the normal procedure was followed of the safety car pitting at the end of the next lap, it would have been doing so just as the chequered flag was ready. Instead, four minutes after the first message, came another stating that the five lapped cars between the two leaders should unlap themselves, and the safety car would be coming in immediately.
All of which left Hamilton a sitting duck for one final lap of racing, with a car on tyres around 2sec faster right on his tail. It was a simple matter for Verstappen to slice down the inside into Turn 5. Hamilton tried to slipstream back ahead on the second half of the back straight but Verstappen with his skinny wing had him covered. Like that, Verstappen became 2021 world champion.