F1 title permutations: How will the 2021 championship be decided?


F1 championship decider: Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton head into the Abu Dhabi Grand prix level on points, but the advantage is with the Red Bull driver

Lewis Hamilton alongside Max Verstappen


After 21 grands prix, 3791 racing miles and countless stewards’ investigations, the 2021 Formula 1 title race comes to a conclusion this weekend in Abu Dhabi with Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen tied on points at the top of the table.

It’s the season-ending showdown set to cap a vintage year of grand prix racing and, in theory, the winner will take all. But F1 isn’t always straightforward, and this year may have a final twist in store.

One crucial element in the championship battle is the number of victories scored by each driver. Verstappen’s nine to Hamilton’s eight will give the Red Bull driver the advantage if the title is tied. If, for example, the pair collided and both retired from the next race.

Expect plenty of comparisons with Senna and Prost in 1989 and 1990, or Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve at Jerez in 1997. What would Verstappen do if he’s leading and Hamilton dives alongside? Letting him through would lose him the title. Squeezing him out of the race would mean victory for Verstappen, whether he continued or not — unless a points deduction was imposed.

This is the situation heading into Abu Dhabi:

  • Only Hamilton or Verstappen can be champion and both are tied on 369.5 points
  • Verstappen would be champion in the event of a tie
  • The extra point for fastest lap could make Verstappen champion even if he finishes behind Hamilton

Max Verstappen bumps fists with Lewis Hamilton

Max Verstappen may have technically still be leading the championship, but there’s no question that Lewis Hamilton has the momentum, and perhaps the faster car, having eliminated Verstappen’s 19-point championship advantage in three races.

Red Bull had a small advantage over Mercedes for much of this season, but it struggled to match the pace of its rival in Brazil and Qatar. The cars were closely matched in Saudi Arabia, with Verstappen looking set to prove the difference in qualifying before his final-corner crash.

Neutral viewers will be hoping for more of the same in Abu Dhabi, where a revised track adds another dimension of unpredictability.

Here’s how either driver could be celebrating in a cloud of tyre smoke on the Yas Marina home straight on Sunday.


F1 championship points after Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Position Driver Points Gap to leader
1 Max Verstappen 369.5
2 Lewis Hamilton 369.5
Maximum points remaining 26
3 Valtteri Bottas 218 -151.5


How Max Verstappen can win the 2021 F1 championship

Verstappen can win in Abu Dhabi if…

Max Verstappen sprays champagne after winning the 2021 Mexican Grand Prix Lewis Hamilton at Interlagos 2021
he finishes the race and Hamilton finishes behind him
he fails to score and Hamilton doesn’t get a point either
he finishes 10th with the fastest lap and Hamilton finishes 9th


Max Verstappen insists that he doesn’t feel the pressure of the title battle. Which is just as well. He’s on the back foot, having finished behind Hamilton for the last three races in a row when his car has either been slower than the Mercedes or — as in qualifying at Jeddah — he’s made a mistake.

If that run of form continues, he will simply lose the championship. So how does he turn it around?

His goal is simply to finish ahead of Hamilton and the title is his. If the cars remain as closely matched as they were in Saudi Arabia, then he has to rate his chances, based on his pace for 95% of his final qualifying lap.

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But racing fans are inevitably drawn to the prospect of the two drivers coming together. Verstappen only leads in the championship courtesy of having won more races this year, but the psychological advantage is considerably greater. Hamilton knows that if both cars retire due to a racing incident, he loses the title. Verstappen knows that he’ll be champion, which is likely to result in a very different approach from both drivers.

Contact isn’t guaranteed to see Verstappen celebrating, though. Hamilton could continue, score points and be crowned champion, as happened to Villeneuve in Jerez, 1997, after he was swiped by Schumacher.

And a collision also threatens to involve stewards — as it did in Jerez — with the potential for championship points to be deducted a very real threat in the event of a title-deciding crash.

Reliability may also play an issue. Hamilton’s Mercedes was fitted with its fifth engine this year in Brazil. Can it see out the season?

Red Bull isn’t immune either. The car has appeared bulletproof this year, but it would just take a faulty tyre; a sticking wheel nut; a visor caught in an air intake; a mis-tightened connector; or a cracking rear wing to put him out of the race and allow Hamilton to take the lead (how do race engineers sleep at night?).

Finally, the spectre of Covid still looms, with testing still taking place throughout the paddock. All it would take would be an unfortunate contact in a departure lounge or hotel room and one of the title contenders could be ruled out of the race, leading to perhaps the most anti-climactic finale in F1 history.


How Lewis Hamilton can win the 2021 F1 World Championship

Hamilton can win in Abu Dhabi if…

Lewis Hamilton with flag of Brazil after winning the grand prix at Interlagos Max Verstappen, 2021 Brazilian GP qualifying
he finishes in the top eight, or in 10th position and Verstappen finishes behind him
he finishes 9th and Verstappen doesn’t get a bonus point for the fastest lap


Making history rarely comes easily but Lewis Hamilton has already done most of the hard work in search of an unprecedented eighth world championship.

He’s come back from a 19-point deficit to Verstappen, won the Brazilian Grand Prix after starting at the back of the sprint race, and now goes to Abu Dhabi in almost the same situation as at the start of the season: level on points with the Dutchman.

That “almost” is critical, though: Hamilton knows that he has to score at least one point more than Verstappen to defend his title, and it means that the hard work is far from over.

Finishing ahead of Verstappen will guarantee the result he needs, unless Hamilton finishes ninth and Verstappen finishes immediately behind, while also recording the fastest lap of the race. In that scenario, both drivers would score two points.

However, given that 13 out of this year’s 22 races have seen the two drivers finish first and second, it’s likely that the championship fight will also be the battle for the race win.

While seeking to best his rival, Hamilton must, at all costs, remain in the race. If he retires, he loses the title. That is unless the stewards get involved, and there are very few fans or drivers who want to see that.

As with Verstappen, Hamilton will also be relying on his car running perfectly until the final lap and a negative Covid diagnosis.