Verstappen vs Hamilton in 2021: the greatest season in F1 history?

F1

The epic 22-race battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen for the 2021 F1 championship has been hailed as the greatest grand prix season in history. Doug Nye, who has witnessed 66 years of them, casts his eye over the claim

Lewis Hamilton alongside MAx VErstappen at the Saudi Arabian Grabnd Prix

The unrelenting title battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen stretched over the full 22-race season

Florent Gooden / DPPI

The extraordinary finale to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix concluded what has been – by absolutely any standards – an extraordinary season of Formula 1 world championship racing.

To the series owners’ delight the season’s progress has been covered, promoted and publicised by wider global media coverage than ever before. It has reached and engaged an entirely new public – most critically, from the owners’ viewpoint, of younger generations.

Just like so many followers of Formula 1, whether deeply committed and knowledgeable or newly attracted and simply excited by this year’s dramas, I have found this past season’s duel for the world championship titles – and it’s at least the 66th which I have followed blow-by-blow – one of the most dramatic ever.

Until the controversy over the final lap in Abu Dhabi consumed Formula 1, there was a widely-discussed premise that it has been “surely the greatest”. Really?  That is a very subjective judgement, dependent totally upon the individual judge’s knowledge of what has gone before.

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Assessing this ‘GOAT’ season judgement requires proper proportion.  The first 10-race F1 Championship season was not run until 1958, the first 20-race season in 2012.

The comparative rarity of qualifying rounds even into the 1970s minimised the chances for a Championship lead to swing to and fro. And yet it did, and several seasons saw many more drivers and teams share winning.

And consider the level of media focus upon Formula 1 until the 80s/90s. ‘Focus’? Forget it. Grand Prix racing was a minority interest. Many in the media – most notably to a UK audience within BBC Sport – did not regard motor racing as a sport at all. Mass media coverage was modest, unless some awful tragedy had occurred when the hacks relished the horror…

So what years could compete for the greatest F1 season of them all? Discounting the last-race dramas of years like 1956, when the deciding Italian GP saw Peter Collins surrender his chance of the World title by handing over his Lancia-Ferrari to team-leader Fangio to clinch the fourth of his five drivers’ championships, there are some serious candidates.

Mike Hawthorn and Stirling Moss at the 1958 Portuguese Grand Prix

Hawthorn vs Moss in Boavista. The Vanwall driver won and helped Hawthorn avoid disqualification, which ultimately cost him the title

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Had 21st century media coverage existed in 1958 that would have been a fabulous season. British-green Vanwalls driven by Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks duelling with compatriots Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins in their red Italian Ferraris. Vanwall stayed away from round 1 in Argentina. Moss arrived there with a tiny 1.9-litre rear-engined Cooper entered by privateer Rob Walker, and outfoxed the shiny new fleet of three 2.4-litre red works Ferraris to score a landmark win – the first for a rear-engined car.

From the archive

He and Vanwall team mate Tony Brooks then went on to win three GPs each for Vanwall, Mike Hawthorn won one – the French race – for Ferrari. His team-mate Peter Collins won the British GP – Ferrari 1-2. But in in that French GP Hawthorn’s Italian team-mate Luigi Musso had crashed fatally. In the German race, Tony Brooks won, but Peter Collins crashed fatally. In Portugal Moss won, Hawthorn racked up another in a series of points-accumulating second places plus an extra point for fastest lap. But there was a problem.  The stewards almost excluded him for infringing racing regulations. And who should leap to his defence but his rival, Moss. Stirling gave evidence in Mike’s defence, the Ferrari driver was cleared, and gained that extra title point.

The denouement, the great Abu Dhabi-like decider, was that year’s Moroccan GP. Moss led throughout, set fastest lap and won, with Hawthorn second – to clinch the Drivers’ title by that single point. And Stirling’s Vanwall team-mate, Stuart Lewis-Evans, crashed in mid-race – and was killed.

Stirling Moss powersliding his Vanwall at the 1958 Moroccan Grand Prix

Moss’s ferocious pace, and victory in Morocco wasn’t enough for the ’58 championship

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Global media devoted more space to the season’s tragedies than to its successes. But that is how it was back then – the way of the world, Formula 1 such a dangerous endeavour.

Through 1959 the Championship season was again hard-fought, with three drivers in contention for their title in the final round at Sebring, Florida. Moss in his Rob Walker Cooper, Brooks for Ferrari and Jack Brabham for the works Cooper team each had a title chance. Stirling’s Cooper broke, Tony’s Ferrari was damaged at the start, and ‘Black Jack’ led to the last lap, ran out of fuel, pushed across the line fourth – and became World Champion.

For British fans 1962 was tremendous – Graham Hill of BRM versus Jim Clark of Lotus, both starting the season without a Championship GP win to their names. Only nine qualifying GPs in the entire year – each one’s significance magnified by its rarity. Graham and Jimmy won three each of the first eight, leaving the December South African GP to decide the issue. Jimmy’s Lotus led, a plug fell out of his car’s gearbox, Graham won the race and Drivers’ title and BRM the Constructors’ Cup.

Jim Clark and Graham Hill on the grid at the 1962 Monaco Grand Prix

1962 brought Clark (foreground) vs Hill, here in Monaco

Philippe Bataillon / INA via Getty Images

By 1964 Ferrari had struggled its way back to competitiveness, led by John Surtees, already a seven-time World Champion on two wheels. In a ten-round series Jim Clark won three of the first five, Graham Hill one. But then Ferrari came on song. Surtees won the German GP, team-mate Bandini a farcical Austrian race. Il Grande John was then badly concussed in a crash during the Goodwood TT race – remember, in that era our stars competed in every available class – yet just a week later he won the Italian GP.

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Into the year’s final round at Mexico City, Clark, Hill and Surtees could each clinch the World title. Jimmy led to the final lap when his engine seized. Graham had tangled with Bandini’s Ferrari mid-race and been delayed. Frenzied Ferrari pit crew signaled Bandini to back-off and let Surtees by into second place. There he finished, as the year’s new World Champion Driver.  What is it with very last laps…?

Consider 1968 – now there’s another candidate. A twelve-round season which saw no fewer than seven different GP-winning drivers – Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Jacky Ickx, Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme and Jo Siffert…

Into the last race in Mexico the title could still be won by Hill, Stewart or Hulme. Denny’s McLaren had been badly damaged in the US GP at Watkins Glen. It was hustled back to Britain, rebuilt, and rushed over to Mexico just in time. But on race day a suspension failure sent Denny into the barrier. Jackie Stewart’s Matra misfired and Graham won for Lotus, his second Drivers’ Championship crown.

Graham Hill leads at the 1968 Mexican Grand Prix

Hill leads in Mexico where he clinched the 1968 championship

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Spool forward – 1974 – Championship series up to 15 rounds – and again seven different GP-winning drivers  – Denny Hulme, Emerson Fittipaldi, Carlos Reutemann, Niki Lauda, Ronnie Peterson, Jody Scheckter and Clay Regazzoni. The deciding race was the season-ending US GP at Watkins Glen – with Fittipaldi of McLaren, Scheckter of Tyrrell and Regazzoni of Ferrari all potential title winners. But Jody was struck by a fuel-system failure, Regga’s Ferrari proved utterly uncompetitive and Emerson took the title with a low-key fourth place. In effect an enthralling season had fizzled…

And so we tumble into the 1980s – and what might be regarded as the prelude to the modern era, which also provides contenders, such as 2003 where eight different winners provided an antidote to the previous year’s dominance by Michael Schumacher — who had to reassert himself to claim his sixth title. Or 2008 when Lewis Hamilton reversed Felipe Massa’s early dominance to set up the extraordinary Brazilian Grand Prix finale.

Felipe Massa and Lewis Hamilton battling in the 2008 Turkish Grand prix

2008 title fight between Hamilton and Massa (here in Turkey) came down to the final corner in Brazil

Grand Prix Photo

You will be able to draw your own conclusions for those seasons in more recent memory: there isn’t space here for me to expound upon further potential GOAT season candidates, but you will know there are several.

So how might a grizzled veteran observer of the Formula 1 World Championship 1950-2021 view this year’s series? Has it – on balance – been indeed the ‘greatest of all time’?

Taking all its facets into consideration – especially its global coverage, public attention and media impact – yes – it is most certainly ‘a contender’…

But given that we’re unlikely to have heard the final word on this year’s season, I am equally certain that history will keep it in proportion.