Uproar as Verstappen wins F1 title on final lap: 2021 Abu Dhabi GP report

F1

Max Verstappen was crowned 2021 F1 champion at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, thanks to a final lap pass on Lewis Hamilton that followed a controversial safety car period

Max Verstappen celebrates winning the 2021 F1 championship on the podium at Abu Dhabi

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Maybe it was destined to end this way. Maybe it was engineered to.

But either way, the 2021 season simply could not end with a boring race. And just when it looked like it would, the year had one final on-track twist that could lead to so many more off it.

Max Verstappen’s stunning pole position looked to have handed him an advantage on Saturday, but he desperately needed to cement it with a clean start on the soft tyres compared to Lewis Hamilton’s mediums. He didn’t get it.

Hamilton was into the lead and with the tyre advantage, so Verstappen needed to hit back quickly. If you haven’t seen Max Verstappen race before, you might be forgiven for not expecting a lunge at Turn 6 after the long straight, but for some reason Hamilton left enough of the door open and Verstappen went for it.

Lewis Hamilton leads at start of 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Hamilton got the jump on Verstappen at the start, despite the Red Bull's softer tyres

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Lewis Hamilton runs wide past Max Verstappen at the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Hamilton went off-track as Verstappen lunged down the inside of Turn 6

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It was a late move, but he got clearly alongside and made the corner, while Hamilton couldn’t turn in and took to the run-off, cutting Turn 7 and staying ahead. The stewards decided no further action was needed after Hamilton slowed slightly to reduce his lead, and Red Bull was livid.

“The start itself was a bit poor,” Verstappen said. “I dropped the clutch and there was just not a lot of grip. So, I don’t know why but suddenly I just saw Lewis shooting by, so very low grip and I don’t really understand why that was the case.

“I had a good run and I went for the inside. I didn’t even lock-up, I just made the corner, did my line and then, of course, he chose to use the escape route and basically gained an advantage by just staying in front by quite a bit. And nothing happened, so I just focused on myself and continued.”

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But it was soon clear why Verstappen had needed to hold the lead. Hamilton had the pace to pull away, even as Red Bull complained to race director Michael Masi about the decision to not penalise the race leader. So the championship leader – on count back of race wins – needed to try and force the issue and made an early pit stop.

Coming in on lap 13 to switch to hard tyres was before Pirelli had recommended, but Hamilton similarly had to respond and matched the strategy a lap later. When he emerged his lead was around eight seconds. But the spanner in the works was the number two drivers.

Valtteri Bottas had made a poor start and was stuck in traffic in eighth place, but Sergio Perez had nailed his launch off the line to easily clear Lando Norris and run third. After the two stops, he was leading and told to hold Hamilton up any way he could.

When Hamilton used DRS to pass towards Turn 6 it looked like a meek effort from Perez, but he regained the spot brilliantly under braking, with Hamilton then pulling ahead on traction out of Turn 7. Perez had DRS though and was back down the inside into Turn 9, retaining the lead for the crucial final sector where it is tough to pass.

Sergio Perez battles with Lewis Hamilton at the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Perez held up Hamilton after delaying his pitstop, allowing Verstappen to close in

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Echoing Hamilton’s own tactics from 2016, Perez then drove a remarkably slow final sector while simultaneously not letting the Mercedes through, and stayed ahead until the hairpin on the next lap. When Hamilton finally got ahead with DRS, Verstappen was right with them, within two seconds of his main target. Perez jumped out of the way, his job done.

“It was a very critical point of the race,” Perez said. “We really need to go through to hold Lewis; basically he had the race under control… I think Max was 10 seconds or more behind, so that would have given him just enough room for all the windows, with all the virtuals and safety cars, so I’m extremely happy that I could do something.

“I was on extremely old tyres and there was not much I could do but I managed to take a couple of seconds out of Lewis. I’m sure Lewis will understand. As a driver you don’t want to get involved in the championship; they’ve worked so hard for it in this moment, but it’s my team. I’ve done it for my team, and I’m sure the sport and everyone will understand it.”

Hamilton pulled clear of Verstappen once again to the tune of 5.7 seconds over the next 15 laps, and this was just when it looked like it was going to end with a whimper, and the first lap the main controversy.

Kimi Raikkonen crashes out of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Räikkönen limped back to the pits after brush with barrier

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Max Verstappen pitstop at 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

VSC for Giovinazzi gave Verstappen the chance to stop for fresh tyres

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Waiting in the television pen for Kimi Räikkönen and George Russell — both early retirements, the former from his final race due to a loose wheel nut that saw him spin off at Turn 6 but limp back to the pits — the Dutch broadcast team were writing the race off. But then Antonio Giovinazzi stopped at Turn 9, the virtual safety car was deployed and Red Bull had a glimmer.

Perez’s work meant Hamilton couldn’t afford to pit as he’d relinquish track position, but having passed the pit entry it meant Red Bull could do something different and both cars came in for new hard tyres. When the VSC ended, Verstappen was 20 seconds behind Hamilton, and slowly clawed that back to around 11 seconds. But it was taking too long.

“I wouldn’t have caught him,” Verstappen said. “They just had too much pace in the car today, even for me with fresher tyres, it just didn’t look like it was going to happen.”

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That was a view shared by Verstappen fans everywhere, but this season has just had too many surprises to end that way. And so it proved once again, when Nicholas Latifi lost control exiting Turn 14 close behind Mick Schumacher and hit the barrier hard, bringing out a safety car with six laps to go.

Again, Hamilton couldn’t risk a pit stop, especially as the race might not restart with Latifi’s brakes catching fire and lapped cars to consider. But Red Bull had nothing to lose so stopped with both cars once again for softs, retaining second for Verstappen.

It took a while to clear the Williams and clean up the scene, to the extent it looked like there might not be any green flag racing left. In order to try and ensure there was, Masi initially said lapped cars would not be allowed to overtake, meaning Verstappen would have a queue to clear before trying to attack Hamilton. Then the message changed at the last second.

“Lapped cars 4 – 14 – 31 – 16 – 5 to overtake safety car” came the race control message. Within a few corners the message ‘safety car in this lap’ followed. Hamilton and Verstappen would be placed together for one final racing lap.

“Michael, this isn’t right,” came Toto Wolff’s radio message.

“No Michael! No Michael, no! That was so not right!”

Max Verstappen overtakes Lewis Hamilton for the 2021 F1 championship

Hamilton defenceless against Verstappen’s fresh soft tyres

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The second message was more pained because it had all unravelled. Verstappen crept alongside Hamilton to show him his fresh softs in the stadium section and then closely followed through the first sector before sending a lunge into the Turn 5 hairpin.

Hamilton had to yield and with no DRS, Verstappen was able to defend the inside into Turn 6 to hold on. He went slightly deep and Hamilton attacked again, but was left no room on the inside and had to switch to the outside ahead of Turn 9. He got alongside, but Verstappen had the high ground, the inside of the corner, and was away. Seven corners later, he was world champion for the first time.

Red Bull burst into wild celebration – as did the the thousands of Dutch fans trackside – but Wolff started the Mercedes complaints that the race restart procedure after the safety car hadn’t been followed correctly. It was a sign of what was to come.

“Firstly a big congratulations to Max and to his team,” Hamilton said after getting out of the car. “I think we did an amazing job this year. My team, everyone back at the factory, all the men and women we have, and here, have worked so hard this whole year.

“It has been the most difficult of seasons. I’m so proud of them, so grateful to be part of the journey with them. We gave it everything. This last part of the season we gave it absolutely everything and we never gave up and that’s the most important thing.”

It would be the last we’d hear from Hamilton after the race.

Lewis Hamilton congratulates Max Verstappen on winning the 2021 F1 championship

Hamilton congratulates the new champion

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Max Verstappen crouches down at the wheel of his Red Bull after 2021 Abu Dhabi GP

Feeling the pressure: the newly-crowned world champion

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Verstappen, meanwhile, crouched against his rear wheel on the grid as the enormity of his achievement sunk in.

“It’s unbelievable,” Verstappen said. “I mean, throughout the whole race I kept fighting and then of course that opportunity on the last, it’s incredible. I’m still having a cramp. But it’s insane. It’s insane. I don’t know what to say.

“Finally a bit of luck, for me. In saying that I also want to say a big thank you to Checo, I mean he was driving his heart out as well today. It was great teamwork and he is an amazing team-mate.”

And the last part was a key point. Verstappen acknowledged his luck with the safety car situation. It wasn’t his doing that race control restarted the race in the way they did, but it was open to protest and Mercedes immediately did so.

One protest related to Verstappen passing under the safety car when alongside Hamilton in the hotel section but that was swiftly dismissed. The second was about the way the race resumed and the way the regulations were – or weren’t – followed.

Four hours after the race and three meetings later, that was also dismissed on the grounds that Masi has “overriding authority” over the use of the safety car.

Red Bull officials walk away from Abu Dhabi protest hearing

Christian Horner and Adrian Newey walk from the stewards’ room

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During that dramatic wait, there was enough time to acknowledge a third place for Carlos Sainz, who stayed out under the late safety car and gained positions when Perez was retired. The Ferrari driver finished fifth in the drivers’ championship as a result, holding off Yuki Tsunoda – who started on mediums but made a late stop for softs – and Pierre Gasly.

Gasly and Fernando Alonso had started on hards and run long, but the AlphaTauri was quicker in the second half of the race and cleared the Alpine, with Bottas’s underwhelming final race for Mercedes ending in a sixth place. Lando Norris was seventh after a late slow puncture forced him to pit before the safety car, with the McLaren driver passing Alonso and Esteban Ocon in the closing stages.

Charles Leclerc rounded out the points in 10th after pitting under VSC and not regaining the ground he expected to, but the rest of the field were all largely sidenotes in the drama.

Fireworks behind Max Verstappen Red Bull after winning the 2021 F1 championship

And it’s drama that isn’t finished yet, as Mercedes immediately lodged its intention to appeal the stewards’ decisions.

“We’ll fight them in the appeal court and then in the legal court after that if they were to go that route,” Christian Horner said at close to midnight.

Sadly, an asterisk remains beside Verstappen’s title for now, and for reasons that aren’t to do with him or Hamilton, nor their respective teams.

It’s a season that feels like it will never end. It’s a season that certainly will never be forgotten.

Max Verstappen celebrates winning the 2021 F1 championship with Christian Horner

Verstappen with team boss Christian Horner

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Max Verstappen celebrates winning the 2021 F1 championship with mechanics

Verstappen and team-members celebrate

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