Critical moments of the 2021 F1 season: where the title was won and lost
Here is the recap of the most important moments from an unforgettable battle between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton
The tides of the 2021 F1 title battle turned at almost every corner of the season. Max Verstappen was the worthy winner eventually but the twists and turns kept everyone guessing right up until the final lap of the year.
Lewis Hamilton was unfortunate to miss out on a record-breaking eighth drivers’ title, but put together one of the best runs of his career against tough opposition to keep the battle going.
From the very start, there were controversies, flashpoints and on-track moments between the pair. Had any of them ended differently, it would have changed the course of the season, potentially making the final lap debacle in Abu Dhabi irrelevant.
But where was the title won and lost?
Round 1: Bahrain
After testing had concluded at Sakhir, many believed we were set for a surprise as Red Bull emerged as the most competitive package.
Those guessing that were on the money. The RB16B was quick as the high-rake philosophy of Red Bull appeared to be the better-suited versus the low-rake employed by Mercedes. The regulations had handicapped Mercedes in a bigger fashion than anyone had envisaged.
The reigning champions were put on notice on Saturday as Verstappen clinched the first pole position of the year by almost four-tenths. On Sunday though, the teams could hardly be separated.
Verstappen kept track position from the start but Mercedes triggered the strategy battle in the first stint, stopping Hamilton early to put the pressure on Red Bull. Verstappen eventually pitted and rejoined behind but before he caught Hamilton, Mercedes was in for a second stop.
Red Bull’s charger pitted again in the final stages to set up a thrilling fightback and attempt to re-catch the lead Mercedes. Hamilton had eked out his tyre life but on lap 52 of 56, Verstappen had caught him.
An attempt around the outside of Turn 4 paid off, or so it looked. Verstappen had gone outside of track limits in completing the overtake and was forced to hand it back. Unfortunately for the Red Bull driver, he moved off of the racing line and got his tyres dirty, losing critical time as he brought them back up to temperature. It allowed Hamilton to cling on for the victory but Verstappen had fired his warning shot.
The incident would also play a crucial role in the Saudi Arabian GP later in the year.
Round 6: Azerbaijan
Red Bull had looked the stronger package around Baku’s streets but Hamilton claimed an unlikely front row start by virtue of Mercedes’ focus on qualifying set-up. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was the surprise pole-sitter.
The longer-term approach from the Bulls would pay off though, with Verstappen easily able to keep pace with his rival in the first stint of the race and eventually pulled off an undercut to take the lead.
It was looking set to be a Red Bull one-two until a dramatic tyre failure for the race leader cruelly denied him the well-earned victory. On lap 46 of 51, Verstappen’s left-rear tyre failed on the fastest part of the track, putting in into the barriers and out of the race.
The debris required a red flag to clean up and after a 30-minute delay, the race restarted on lap 50, setting up a two-lap sprint for the win.
Hamilton, who’d also fallen behind Sergio Perez in the stops, aced his start and was alongside into the first corner. An accidental press of the Mercedes ‘brake magic’ button, designed to switch brake balance forward to warm the tyres, meant he locked up and went straight on at Turn 1.
Perez clinched his first Red Bull win while Verstappen breathed a sigh of relief in the garage as Hamilton failed to score and capitalise on his rival’s misfortune.
Round 10: Silverstone
Described by Max Verstappen as his “lowest moment” of the 2021 season, the British GP was the first time the tensions between the title contenders truly boiled over.
The first ever sprint race in F1 history played a critical role in the outcome of the weekend, with Hamilton setting the fastest qualifying time from Friday but losing out to Verstappen at the start of the sprint.
The Mercedes driver couldn’t catch the Red Bull in the ensuing laps as Verstappen claimed the first pole via sprint race, but the battle was far from over.
On Sunday, Hamilton took the fight to Verstappen immediately, knowing full well his best chance of victory was to overtake his rival on the opening lap of the race after getting stuck behind the day before.
The two battled along the Wellington Straight and came very close to contact but, with a cleaner run around Luffield and through Woodcote, Hamilton shaped to the inside of Copse.
Verstappen squeezed the Mercedes right up to the wall but Hamilton didn’t back out of his move. As Verstappen entered Copse corner, Hamilton’s front left was still alongside the rear right of the Red Bull and contact was inevitable.
It speared Verstappen off and into the barriers, suffering a 51g accident while Hamilton continued on in second. He was assigned a 10-second time penalty for the crash but would not be denied on home turf.
He overcame the time penalty and overtook Leclerc in the closing laps to secure a decisive victory and close the gap in the championship back down to eight points. The tensions between Red Bull and Mercedes teams though were higher than ever.
Round 11: Hungary
Rain arriving in time for the start of the race forced everyone onto the intermediate tyres but the drama was just getting started.
Valtteri Bottas locked up into the first corner, hitting Lando Norris who was then sent into the side of Max Verstappen. Several other drivers were involved too in a separate incident and a red flag was thrown to clear up the mess at T1.
By the time the race was set to get back underway though, the sun had emerged and as the field was on its way back to the grid to take the restart, many were predicting dry tyres were the way to go.
Pole-sitter Hamilton was in no mans land then when he continued around the final corner to take up his place on pole while every other car pitted for dries. A bizarre one-car grid was formed and the Mercedes was sent on its way but Hamilton had to box at the end of the lap, falling behind Verstappen.
An earlier second stop for Merc put him ahead via the undercut and he set about carving his way back through the field in order to retake the top spot but a stubborn and familiar foe in the form of Fernando Alonso ensured he would never quite make it back to P1.
Some canny driving from the Spaniard left Hamilton with too much to do in too few laps and he had to settle for third on the road which turned into second after Sebastian Vettel’s post-race disqualification.
The standings were eight points in Hamilton’s favour, 195 to Verstappen’s 187. Once again like in Baku, it was worst case scenario avoided for Red Bull.
Round 14: Italy
The second sprint race weekend in F1 history and the second time the title contenders crashed together on track.
Mercedes was the favourite heading into the weekend but it was Valtteri Bottas that took pole position on Friday with Lewis Hamilton alongside him on the front row. That was as good as it got for the British driver though. An awful start in the sprint left him behind the McLaren of Lando Norris unable to find a way past and he started the race fifth.
On the opening lap he gained places and was challenging Verstappen for second into the Variante della Roggia chicane. The Dutchman was having none of it though.
A forceful move put Hamilton across the kerbs and he lost out to Norris. It was as you were at the front until the pit stops and an uncharacteristic mistake from the Red Bull pit crew. Verstappen was held for 11sec just as Hamilton finally found a way past Norris.
Mercedes covered off the title threat on the following lap though their own delay had Hamilton back on track ahead but only just. Into the first chicane Verstappen got aggressive and tried for a move just as the Mercedes fed back onto the circuit.
Hamilton showed Verstappen the same manners as on lap one but the Red Bull driver bounced across the kerbs and into Hamilton, mounting the top of the Mercedes and putting both into the gravel and out of the race.
“That’s what you get when you don’t leave any space,” said Verstappen while Hamilton desperately tried to reverse out of the gravel to no avail.
Verstappen escaped Monza with his five-point championship lead intact despite pre-race predictions.
Round 15: Russia
Another chaotic round affected by the weather as rain in Sochi threw every driver a curveball across the weekend.
Qualifying had been completed on intermediates up until Q3 when the track began to dry up just enough to consider dries if you could keep it on the road.
Hamilton had topped both previous sessions but a moment entering the pits sent him into the wall and cost him critical time as others got their fresh tyres and went back out for a final attempt.
In the end it was Norris that secured his maiden F1 pole while Hamilton was left in fourth place with Carlos Sainz and George Russell ahead.
Verstappen hadn’t bothered to set a time in any session due to an engine change and grid penalty plus his three places for being judged to have caused the Monza crash with Hamilton.
The Mercedes driver’s afternoon got off to a rough start, dropping two places down to sixth. Verstappen meanwhile cleared the other Merc of Valtteri Bottas by lap 6 and was closing in on his rival.
By the time the first stops came around, Verstappen was in the same DRS train that Hamilton was stuck in just a few seconds ahead.
As others pitted, Hamilton remained out and performed an overcut to jump ahead of Daniel Ricciardo who’d headed up the earlier queue. After all the stops were completed, Hamilton was able to whittle down the gap to race leader Norris and with eight laps to go was within DRS range. Verstappen meanwhile was stuck in seventh due to traffic.
At the same time, rain began to fall in sector two and only increased in intensity from that point on. Some drivers too the gamble to fit inters but Norris remained out in front, intending to run to the end on dries.
Hamilton pitted for the intermediates on lap 49 of 53 and was followed in by the majority of the top 10, including Verstappen.
With two laps to go, the game was up and the rain was too much. Norris spun off out of the lead allowing Hamilton to pick up win number 100. Critically for the championship though, Verstappen was arguably the biggest winner of all.
He’d climbed from seventh in all of the last-gasp melee to arrive at the line in second having started from last on the grid, saving crucial championship points in the process.
Round 19: Brazil
Another F1 sprint race weekend, another few days of drama in the 2021 championship fight.
Despite Hamilton having a 19-point deficit to make up in the final four rounds, Mercedes announced he would be taking a five-place grid penalty for a new engine at Interlagos.
Having put his Mercedes on pole for the sprint, his penalty was about to become a lot worse. Post-qualifying, an FIA inspection of the rear wing assembly revealed that one side of the DRS flap was opening wider than the 85mm permitted within the regulations. As a result, he was thrown out of qualifying and forced to start from last place on the grid.
Cue some intense lappery of Interlagos as Hamilton made the most of his new motor. He was up to fifth by the end, just 3sec off of a podium and points-paying position despite his P20 starting slot.
For the race, he was starting 10th but by lap 5, he was up to third. After dispatching the sister Red Bull of Perez, Hamilton began closing down on Verstappen.
On lap 48, the move was on and Hamilton attempted to go around the outside of his foe. Verstappen braked late and forced both off track, but escaped any sanction from the stewards for his controversial defence.
Some tense radio conversations between the teams and race control played out in the following laps, but on lap 59 Hamilton was back on the gearbox of his title rival and this time made sure there was no comeback.
Setting up a switchback out of the first chicane by forcing Verstappen defensive, Hamilton got the better drive approaching Turn 4 and pinched Verstappen to the inside in order to prevent any repeats of his earlier move.
From that point on, Hamilton was untroubled and rounded off a superb comeback drive to win.
Round 21: Saudi Arabia
Another pole position went Hamilton’s way but it wasn’t looking like anything other than a Verstappen-dominated session. The Red Bull was flying on his final lap, able to fire up the softs better and he was leaving no time on the table, almost hitting the wall on the exit of Turns 2 and 13. Pushing right to the limit, his luck ran out on the third time.
A lock-up into the final corner left him wide and in trying to lose as little time as possible, spun up the rears and slammed into the wall on exit having been 0.3sec up on the provisional pole time.
Fortunately for him, his gearbox survived the smash but it left him with a lot of work to do in the race. Initially, the race that had promised chaos was unfolding without drama. Mercedes held its one-two from the start and Verstappen was resigned to follow further back in third.
But Mick Schumacher’s crash on lap 21 brought out the red flags though not before both Mercedes cars had pitted under a temporary safety car, relinquishing the lead to Verstappen. The reset brought the much-anticipated drama.
Hamilton got the better launch and was set to take first but Verstappen cut Turn 2 and retook the lead, forcing Hamilton to slow to avoid the rejoining Red Bull, and the Merc lost second to a fast-starting Esteban Ocon.
Another crash in the mid-pack brought a second red flag and more team radio madness. Red Bull bargained with the FIA to have Verstappen give back the place to Hamilton to avoid a penalty and so he started the second restart from third, behind the race-leading Alpine and Hamilton.
The next start was equally mad as Verstappen dived down the inside to make it three wide into T1, and he claimed first fair and square.
A Mercedes set-up to protect the tyres in the race though allowed Hamilton to remain in striking distance and so when a VSC fell kindly for the Mercedes to gain DRS, the move for the lead was on.
Hamilton looked to have the place sealed until a Brazilian repeat meant both drivers were forced off the track as Verstappen braked too late to make the corner. This time though he was going to be handed a penalty but not before the race-defining moment.
Asked by his team to “strategically” give up the place, Verstappen lifted off throttle approaching Turn 27 and the DRS detection line. Hamilton was unsure how to approach but quickly worked out the Dutchman’s plans, so he stuck close behind to get a run. The Red Bull driver then braked again to try and cede the place but the Mercedes made contact and Hamilton damaged his front wing.
Verstappen drove off and was handed a five-second penalty for the Turn 1 antics but he conceded the position to Hamilton a few laps later.
Hamilton won the race but the rivalry between the two teams and its drivers was at a new low point.
Round 22: Abu Dhabi
And so after all of the events across the 2021 season, the title came down to the final round with both contenders level on points.
Both teams had pressured the FIA following Saudi Arabia that the title could not be decided in the stewards room should there be contact and it seemed like that was the worst outcome possible.
Verstappen took a critical pole, comfortably fastest on Saturday but the story was far from over. He’d locked up in Q2 on his mediums and so went through to Q3 with a time on the softs while Mercedes stuck with the yellow-walled mediums.
Despite the tyre disadvantage, Hamilton aced his start and took the lead into Turn 1. Verstappen tried another lunge down the inside at Turn 6 and kept all four wheels inside track limits, but he’d crowded Hamilton off the track in the process. The stewards deemed there was no investigation necessary after Hamilton was judged to have given up the time advantage he’d gained by cutting the corner.
The first stint was a comfortable one for Mercedes so Red Bull got aggressive, pitting Verstappen earlier to try and gain time back but he was covered off the following lap by Hamilton. Red Bull left Perez out on track to block for Verstappen but even they couldn’t have envisaged the job the Mexican was about to do for Verstappen.
He blocked Hamilton where possible and after two laps behind the Bull before retaking the lead, Hamilton’s advantage had shrunk from 11sec down to just 1.9sec.
Despite this, Hamilton was able to extend his lead once again but when a VSC was deployed to recover Antonio Giovinazzi’s Alfa Romeo, Verstappen pitted again to fit fresh hard tyres. Would he be able to close down the 20sec gap to Hamilton by the end? After a few laps had unfolded post-VSC, it looked highly unlikely.
Hamilton retained a lead of around 10sec and was losing just 0.2-0.4sec per lap, not enough to lose the lead and he was looking set for an eighth drivers’ title. Until Nicholas Latifi crashed his Williams with 7 laps remaining.
The safety car was deployed and Red Bull took advantage, fitting softs for Verstappen in the hopes of a restart that looked unlikely to happen. On lap 56, marshals were finally clear of the track and but lapped cars were instructed they could not un-lap themselves.
One lap later and the five lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen were given the green light to overtake, and the safety car was called in at the end of lap 57 of 58. It set up a one-lap shootout for the title.
Verstappen made use of his softs, diving down the inside of the Mercedes into Turn 5 and seeing off the threat on both straights to claim his maiden crown but the controversy was just getting started.
F1 had its first Dutch champion, a deserving one at that, but the manner in which the final laps unfolded in Abu Dhabi will split opinion for years to come.