Exciting or farcical? Abu Dhabi win was mission impossible for faster Mercedes


Lewis Hamilton had the faster car and his team made all the right decisions, but there was little he could do against Max Verstappen at the dramatic end to the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and the F1 title fight

Max Verstappen overtakes Lewis Hamilton for the 2021 F1 championship

Verstappen passes Hamilton for the race — and championship — win

Joe Portlock/F1 via Getty Images

Yes, the 2008 title finale was dramatic, but this one topped it.

Max Verstappen won the race in Abu Dhabi and thereby the world championship by overtaking Lewis Hamilton on the last lap. But that was barely the start of it.

The question was whether the race should even have been live at this time rather than under the safety car which had been scrambled six laps earlier after Nicholas Latifi clattered his Williams into the barrier after the hotel at the end of the lap.

Hamilton’s Mercedes had dominated the race up until this point, Verstappen a distant second, unable to run at anything like Hamilton’s pace all evening, despite having set a stunning pole position in the Red Bull-Honda.

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The safety car gifted Verstappen the opportunity to get onto a fresh set of soft tyres with Hamilton obliged to be a potential restart sitting duck on ancient old hards. But would there be a restart? Would there be time for it, once the mess had been cleared? By lap 56, with two to go, it looked too late. Certainly, they would have run out of time if the usual protocol of letting the lapped cars unlap themselves had been followed. The sporting regulations say the safety car will come in the lap after this has happened, giving those unlapped cars the chance of getting to the back of the pack. But that would mean the safety car coming in just as the chequered flag was falling.

So could they restart with the lapped cars in place and race for one lap to the flag? Yes that’s not without precedent and initially that was what was announced by race control. But there were five lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen, which would have made things very difficult for the latter. Suddenly it was announced that those five cars could unlap themselves – and the safety car would be coming in on that lap. It made for an incredibly dramatic ending to this amazing season and Verstappen duly made his move into Turn 5 on the last lap, fended off a retaliating Hamilton down the next couple of straights, then pulled away to his first world championship. But it was a somewhat unconventional take on the regulations and not one which Mercedes believed to be correct.

The evening ended with protests to the stewards being heard and thrown out.

Sergio Perez was retired during the safety car as his engine was about to expire and the last thing Red Bull needed was an extension of the safety car period, thus promoting Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari to third. Those last few laps were either wildly exciting or farcical depending upon your viewpoint and perhaps who your favoured driver is. But before Latifi crunched the barriers and triggered the chaos, Hamilton had dominated the evening completely.

How so, when Verstappen had been so much faster in qualifying?

Max Verstappen in the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Red Bull’s Abu Dhabi set-up brought compromised race pace

Red Bull

Essentially the Red Bull had a set-up which worked the rear tyres too hard but which gave it a sensationally good single lap balance in the cooling night time surface of Q3, enough to give Verstappen the confidence to reel off a truly stunning lap, helped also by a tow from team-mate Perez.

Up until that moment, Mercedes had looked much the faster car. Mercedes felt quite confident therefore in protecting the rear tyres for the demands of sector three where the rubber always tends to overheat, thereby reducing its useful range and impacting upon strategy.

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Red Bull’s car, with its big downforce rear end, can occasionally get to a place where it runs out of front wing adjustment as the track grips up. This circuit is notorious for gripping as the sun sets and the surface cools. Hence Verstappen was running a skinny wing, way skinnier than that on the rear-tyre protecting Merc.

So as soon as the race started Verstappen, after losing the start to the medium-tyred Hamilton despite his grippier soft-compound rubber, was running a few tenths slower as he had to keep his rear tyres below their degrading threshold.

Even taking advantage of a VSC with 20 laps to go to get onto fresh tyres, Verstappen was never within striking distance of Hamilton other than a first lap wheel-rubbing moment at Turn 5-6. On that occasion and in the moment of the Latifi safety car, Mercedes was caught between a rock and a hard place in that whatever they did Red Bull would do the opposite. Had they pitted Hamilton, they’d have lost track position to Verstappen. Trying then to overtake Verstappen, whether in a faster car or not, around the Yas Marina circuit would not have been the work of a moment. With Verstappen the champion if neither finished, this was something they were seeking to avoid. They did all the right things, Hamilton ran his race superbly well. But random fate, and the race director, switched the outcome.