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Graham Read
Formula 1 Correspondent
5:16 PM 12th December 2021
sports

Verstappen On Top Of The World In Abu Dhabi

At the Formula 1 season finale in Abu Dhabi this afternoon the world witnessed what was in effect a dramatic one-race shootout for both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles, with Mercedes’ 36 year old multiple champion Sir Lewis Hamilton taking on Red Bull’s 24 year old Max Verstappen. After a tense but thrilling finale with a real sting n the tail it was Verstappen who became the first ever Dutch world champion, whilst Mercedes achieved an eighth consecutive Constructors’ title.

The new world champion Max Verstappen with his father Jos, himself a former F1 driver
The new world champion Max Verstappen with his father Jos, himself a former F1 driver
As the F1 circus had set up camp at the Yas Marina circuit ahead of the final race weekend of the season the momentum had very much been with Hamilton after successive victories in Brazil, Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the reigning champion had arrived with a tally of 369.5 points, exactly the same as Verstappen. However, the Red Bull team leader had topped the official championship table due to having already won nine Grands Prix this season compared to Hamilton’s eight and the two drivers were fully aware that, if both failed to either finish or score any points in Abu Dhabi, this would make Verstappen the champion. On the Constructors’ front (the title the teams actually most want to win as it pays the prize money) Mercedes had been in a more comfortable position as its lead with one race to go had been 28 points.
This left us with a thrilling single racing lap to go as Verstappen sat right behind Hamilton and used his soft tyres to great effect, passing his rival for the lead and with it the world championship at Turn 5.

The previous race in Saudi Arabia had been a fraught, controversial affair with ill-feeling, arguments, accidents and some questionable driving by both leading drivers, leaving race director Michael Masi feeling the need to remind all teams in Abu Dhabi that unsporting behaviour in the season finale would not be tolerated and would be punished. On the positive side, there had been an amazing sense of anticipation amongst motorsport fans around the world ahead of today’s decider and also amongst many not normally interested in F1, but who had become swept up in the excitement of the highly unusual scenario which hadn’t been replicated for almost half a century.
2021 Formula 1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

1 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 1hr30m17.345s
2 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +2.256s
3 Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +5.173s
4 Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri) +5.692s
5 Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +6.531s
6 Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) +7.463s
7 Lando Norris (McLaren) +59.200s
8 Fernando Alonso (Alpine) +1m1.708s
9 Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +1m4.026s
10 Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +1m6.057s
11 Sebastian Vettel (Aston Martin) +1m7.527s
12 Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren) Lapped
13 Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) Lapped
14 Mick Schumacher (Haas) Lapped
15 Sergio Pérez (Red Bull) Retired
16 Nicholas Latifi (Williams) Retired
17 Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo) Retired
18 George Russell (Williams) Retired
19 Kimi Räikkönen (Alfa Romeo) Retired
20 Nikita Mazepin (Haas) Did not start

The season had already been full of exciting, if sometimes controversial racing ontrack and talking points off it, with all bar the most committed Mercedes fans agreeing that at last it was so exciting to see another team able to at least seriously challenge its total domination of the sport since the start of the turbo hybrid era back in 2014. Throughout the year Hamilton and Verstappen had stood out as very much the two best drivers on the grid, but their rivalry had become increasingly intense, evoking many memories of the 1988-1990 bitter championship fights between Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna.

Lewis Hamilton had to settle for second best in both Abu Dhabi and the Drivers’ championship
Lewis Hamilton had to settle for second best in both Abu Dhabi and the Drivers’ championship
Turning briefly away from title matters and following the recent public outcry against Mercedes for agreeing a sponsorship deal with Kingspan, a company involved in the Grenfell Tower disaster and the ongoing public inquiry into the tragedy, the Brackley based team had announced last Wednesday that it had ended the relationship with immediate effect.

Back on the subject of Yas Marina, Verstappen had dominated the race last December, starting from pole position and leading every lap, with the teams tending to prefer one stop rather than two stop strategies due to the difficulty in overtaking and a pit lane time loss of around 23 seconds. However, since then changes have been made to the track, resulting in higher speeds and shorter, faster lap times, if also increased tyre degradation. Crucially it was also hoped that overtaking opportunities would become more frequent too.

Friday’s opening free practice session had been the first opportunity for all the drivers to get to experience the new layout for real rather than just in a simulator and it was Verstappen who had topped the timesheets ahead of Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas, Hamilton and the second Red Bull pedalled by Sergio Pérez. The action in the subsequent second practice got underway in twilight conditions, mirroring what would follow for yesterday’s qualifying hour and today’s race, and this time Hamilton struck back, leading the way from Alpine’s Esteban Ocon, Bottas and Verstappen. The latter was a significant 0.641s slower than his title rival.

Alpine’s Esteban Ocon powering through the pitlane exit tunnel
Alpine’s Esteban Ocon powering through the pitlane exit tunnel
With just over a minute of the session remaining, Kimi Räikkönen, competing in his last F1 Grand Prix weekend since his Australian debut way back in 2001, lost the rear of his Alfa Romeo at Turn 14 and the ensuing collision with the barriers caused red flags and the slightly premature end to the ontrack action. Talking of final races, Abu Dhabi was also set to be Bottas’ last drive for Mercedes before heading to Alfa Romeo next year and George Russell’s final appearance for Williams before his promotion to the Mercedes team. We had to spare a thought too for Antonio Giovinazzi, who had one last race for Alfa Romeo coming up before being dropped and heading to compete in all-electric Formula E.
2021 Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship

1 Max Verstappen 395.5
2 Lewis Hamilton 387.5
3 Valtteri Bottas 226
4 Sergio Pérez 190
5 Carlos Sainz 164.5
6 Lando Norris 160
7 Charles Leclerc 159
8 Daniel Ricciardo 115
9 Pierre Gasly 110
10 Fernando Alonso 81
11 Esteban Ocon 74
12 Sebastian Vettel 43
13 Lance Stroll 34
14 Yuki Tsunoda 32
15 George Russell 16
16 Kimi Räikkönen 10
17 Nicholas Latifi 7
18 Antonio Giovinazzi 3
19 Mick Schumacher 0
20 Robert Kubica 0
21 Nikita Mazepin 0


Hamilton was again quickest in yesterday’s final practice session, two tenths of a second faster than Verstappen, and this was followed by the all-important qualifying hour. With the polesitter having won the Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi for the previous six years everyone was aware that the outcome was potentially crucial. Mercedes had looked likely to transfer their practice advantage into qualifying and, after Verstappen had flatspotted his medium specification tyres in Q2, his team switched both their cars to a strategy which involved starting on soft rubber whereas Mercedes opted to start on the less grippy but more durable mediums. Come the top ten shootout, a clever strategy from Red Bull saw Verstappen and Pérez help each other out with a tow, which was enough for Pérez to qualify fourth and a simply outstanding lap from his team-mate gave Verstappen pole position ahead of Hamilton. An impressive effort from McLaren’s Lando Norris too saw him end up as the best of the rest alongside Pérez, with Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz fifth and the other Mercedes driven by Bottas only sixth.

Five hours before the start of today’s Grand Prix the Haas team announced that their driver Russian Nikita Mazepin had tested positive for COVID-19 and, despite feeling well and being asymptomatic, had gone into isolation. Under F1’s sporting regulations it was too late for a replacement driver to be nominated and so Mick Schumacher would be their only driver in the race. There was a real sense of anticipation and excitement in the air as the 17.00 local time start neared (13.00 UK time) and it was clear that a small army of orange clad Verstappen fans had travelled to the Middle East to support their hero. At this stage there were so many questions, but as yet no answers. Who would make the best start and would it be a clean one without contact? Would Verstappen’s soft tyres give him an early advantage over his rival, but force him to pit earlier? Would Hamilton’s medium tyres prove to be the better choice? Would Pérez and Bottas play their part in the title battles? Would another driver accidentally become involved in the race outcome? All was set to be revealed.

George Russell’s helmet for his last race with Williams bore messages from team members
George Russell’s helmet for his last race with Williams bore messages from team members
The stakes were so high when those famous red lights went out for the last time this season and it was Hamilton who made a dream start, immediately powering past his rival into the lead before the first corner. However, Verstappen soon looked set to sweep past at Turn 7 on the opening lap as Hamilton left the track and rejoined with an extended lead. Controversy ensued when the stewards declared that no investigation was necessary and that the Mercedes driver did not need to hand the position back to his Red Bull opponent. As the pattern of the race settled, Hamilton started to extend his lead over Verstappen, with both drivers and Pérez pulling clear of the rest of the field.

On lap 14 Verstappen pitted to switch his soft tyres for hards and Mercedes brought Hamilton in to replace his medium ones with hards. This left the yet to stop Pérez in the lead and we witnessed a tremendous scrap between the Mexican and Hamilton as the former did a great job for his Red Bull team before the reigning champion eventually found a way past. Soon Verstappen was just over a second behind his rival as they extended the gap over the rest, but Hamilton then edged clear out front.

Antonio Giovinazzi’s Alfa Romeo ground to a halt at Turn 9 on lap 36, triggering a Virtual Safety Car period to enable its safe removal, and Red Bull took the opportunity to bring both its drivers in for fresh sets of hard rubber whereas Mercedes opted to leave Hamilton on track. Two tours later the VSC period ended and racing resumed, with the leading Hamilton 17 seconds ahead of second placed Verstappen on fresher tyres. At this stage in the 58 lap Grand Prix the Dutch charger set about reducing Hamilton’s advantage, earning the extra point for the fastest lap, but it very much looked like he would not manage to reduce the deficit sufficiently before the chequered flag, which would have made Hamilton the champion.

Kimi Räikkönen said farewell to F1 after a career which had begun back in 2001
Kimi Räikkönen said farewell to F1 after a career which had begun back in 2001
The Red Bull team principal Christian Horner admitted that they would need a miracle in the closing ten laps and in a twist of fate it came in the form of Nicholas Latifi crashing his Williams heavily at Turn 14 on lap 53, bringing out the Safety Car. Red Bull immediately reacted by bringing its drivers in to change from hard to soft tyres whereas Mercedes again chose to leave Hamilton on track with his ageing hard tyres. As the stricken Williams was cleared away there was some initial confusion as to whether the five lapped cars between the leading Hamilton and second placed Verstappen would be moved out of the way before racing resumed, but ultimately they were.

This left us with a thrilling single racing lap to go as Verstappen sat right behind Hamilton and used his soft tyres to great effect, passing his rival for the lead and with it the world championship at Turn 5. This left everyone at Red Bull ecstatic with delight, whereas a very unhappy Mercedes team experienced opposite elations, subsequently lodging appeals against what they saw as breaches of the sporting regulations with regard to Race Control’s handling of the closing laps. For the record Ferrari’s Sainz completed the podium trio, with AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda and Pierre Gasly plus Bottas completing the top sextet.

This all simply epitomised what has been a superb year of often intense and enthralling, if at times acrimonious F1 action both on and off track. We’d still managed to achieve a 22 race 2021 calendar despite the ongoing impact of the pandemic and thoughts are already starting to turn to next season, when the all-new car regulations will be with us to contest a recordbreaking 23 Grands Prix around the world.

I hope you have all enjoyed following this season as much as I have enjoyed reporting on it and I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Healthy and Happy New Year ahead of the 2022 campaign starting in Bahrain next March.

2021 Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship

1 Mercedes 613.5
2 Red Bull 585.5
3 Ferrari 323.5
4 McLaren 275
5 Alpine 155
6 AlphaTauri 142
7 Aston Martin 77
8 Williams 23
9 Alfa Romeo 13
10 Haas 0