Verstappen steals F1 title after huge controversy in Abu Dhabi
- Max Verstappen takes F1 world title with last lap overtake of Lewis Hamilton
- Huge controversy in the Middle East after late race safety car and disputed restart
- Drama follows near-miss collision between the two on first lap
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen is the new F1 world champion, after an evening of late controversy in the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton looked on course to take a record eighth title after dominating the race, but a late crash for Williams driver Nicholas Latifi turned everything on its head.
Hamilton had a lead of over eight seconds with just seven laps remaining, but Latifi’s crash brought out the safety car. Verstappen pitted for fresh tyres with enough of a margin for him to emerge from the pits on his new rubber without losing positions. But Hamilton couldn’t afford to stop, knowing if he did, Verstappen would do the opposite and take the lead with just a few laps remaining.
Then came confusion as the race restarted. Hamilton, on tyres around 35 laps older than Verstappen’s, had several lapped cars between himself and the Dutchman, with race control initially saying that lapped cars would not be permitted to overtake and unlap themselves. That would have meant Verstappen needed to clear four cars before getting to Hamilton on the final lap of racing, making his chances of taking the win much harder.
But just as the race was about to start, Race Director Michael Masi allowed only the cars between the title fighting duo to unlap themselves, bringing the pair together for a final lap shootout in the winner takes all clash.
At the restart, Hamilton held the lead but Verstappen pounced at the new turn five hairpin and lunged up the inside to take the position. Hamilton wasn’t done though, and got in the slipstream down the following straight before the chicane. Verstappen held firm but was messy through the two corners, giving Hamilton another chance down the next straight. The pair went side by side on the approach to another new corner, the banked turn nine. Verstappen held the inside line and fended Hamilton off, and pulled away through the following corners as he made full use of the significantly fresher tyres to win the race and his first title.
That wasn’t to be the end of it though, as Mercedes lodged two protests relating to Verstappen briefly overtaking Hamilton at the end of the safety car period, and then the manner of the race restart, with claims that the regulations had not been fully adhered to. Five hours after the end of the race, the appeals were finally thrown out, confirming Verstappen as the new champion, although Mercedes have opted to take further action.
This wasn’t the first moment of controversy, with the pair almost coming to blows on the first lap of the race. Verstappen had started on pole, but Hamilton made by far the better start to take the lead at the first turn. The Red Bull driver fought back at the turn six/seven chicane halfway round the lap, making a late move for the lead. Hamilton was forced into taking avoiding action and he skipped across the run off area and retained his position at the front.
Normal circumstances would be that Hamilton should concede the position with Verstappen managing to keep his car on track, but it was decided by race control that Hamilton had handed enough of his advantage back.
With Hamilton off the hook, he showed his pace advantage and pulled away, leading by around five seconds when Verstappen pitted to replace the softer tyres he started on. Hamilton pitted next time around to change his medium tyres and eradicate any chance of Verstappen getting the ‘undercut’, and emerged well ahead of his rival, but behind Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez who now led, and was to play his part.
By the time Hamilton caught the Mexican driver he was over 10 seconds ahead of Verstappen, but Perez put on a brilliant display of defensive driving to keep Hamilton behind him for a lap and a half, and in the process, allow Verstappen to get within a couple of seconds of him.
Hamilton finally found a way past, and as soon as he did, Perez allowed his teammate past too, setting up a straight fight at the front. But Hamilton again pulled away, with Verstappen having no answer to his pace.
But when Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi retired at the side of the road, the virtual safety car was deployed, meaning cars circulate at much lower speed, allowing pit stops to be made with much less of a time penalty. Verstappen opted to pit with nothing to lose, giving him much fresher tyres than Hamilton, but putting him 17 seconds behind his rival by the time the caution period ended.
Verstappen was able to lap quicker than the Mercedes driver, but not at a rate quick enough to catch Hamilton in the remaining laps. However Latifi’s crash effectively handed Verstappen the title on the plate, with Mercedes not willing to risk losing track position, with the duration of the safety car period uncertain, and the possibility of the race finishing under the safety car.
Both teams lobbied Masi to make decisions favourable to their races, but once it was clear that the race was to restart over a single lap, with no cars between the title contenders and with Verstappen on significantly quicker and fresher rubber, the outcome was almost a foregone conclusion.
Verstappen crossed the line to win the race and take the title, but there was always a feeling that a protest would follow, and Mercedes quickly put their plans into action, having already taken a barrister with them to the event in the scenario of needing to make a protest.
Mercedes’ two protests were heard, and while the overtaking under the safety car was the first to be dismissed, the decision over the second appeal, that of the race restart, took much longer to be decided.
But Verstappen was finally crowned once the decision was finalised, though it now seems that the debate will continue, with Mercedes confirming their intentions to launch a secondary appeal.
The furore seems almost fitting given the nature of the 2021 season that saw the two drivers collide on several occasions, with an almost constant war of words between the two teams in the second half of the season.
Mercedes were crowned as Constructors’ champions for the eighth successive year, but any celebrations were muted, while Hamilton for now, misses out on cementing his status as the outright record holder for championship wins.
For Verstappen though, Sunday’s race is a milestone in his career, and surely the first title of many for a prodigiously talented driver.
Richard Randle is a motorsport PR professional working with the UK’s top racing circuits and the UK’s premier single-seater category, the BRDC British F3 Championship.