This season has been so insane that I expected madness from the 2021 Abu Dhabi GP. Make sure you read our previous race reviews to fully understand the events that lead to this mind-blowing finale. It’s been a fantastic season of F1. 21 races of battle led to the title rivals being equal on points heading into the finale. Max Verstappen was 1st in the standings because he had one more race win than Lewis Hamilton. If both rivals didn’t score points in Abu Dhabi, Verstappen would win the title because of that advantage. But that was highly unlikely, so whoever finished ahead would win the title. It was the perfect shoot-out to end the season.
Coming into the Grand Prix, Verstappen had the upper hand because he qualified in pole position. Hamilton qualified in 2nd, however, so he was still a major threat for Verstappen. The 5 red lights turned on for the start of the 2021 Abu Dhabi GP, for one last time in 2021. The drama started STRAIGHT AWAY. Hamilton nailed the start and cleanly overtook Verstappen before Turn 1! Before the drivers had reached the opening corner, the championship fight was blown wide open.
Coming into this race, since Verstappen qualified on pole, and since he had dominated in Abu Dhabi last year, I thought he would have the upper hand. But the start worked out perfectly for Hamilton. Verstappen was already at a disadvantage because he was starting the race on the soft tires while Hamilton was starting on the mediums. The mediums are almost always a better tire to start the race on. And at the Abu Dhabi GP, a 1-stop was the optimal strategy. This means that Verstappen knew he needed the lead to make up for the time he would lose by starting on the softs instead of the mediums. So what happened after that start? It’s time to get into the analysis!
The Titans Tussle On The Opening Lap
Through Turns 2&3, Hamilton used the clear air in front of him to gain a small advantage. Down into Turn 5, which was the replacement for the chicane at the beginning of sector 2, Hamilton was clearly ahead. Verstappen tried to gain time and optimized his exit out of the hairpin. That helped him when he used the slipstream down the long back straight, with Hamilton going off the racing line to try and break the tow. However, Verstappen got close enough down into Turn 6 to go for the divebomb. Remember, this was only the opening lap of the 2021 Abu Dhabi GP!
Under braking, Hamilton moved to the middle of the circuit to try and defend from Verstappen. But as Verstappen dived to the apex, Hamilton turned in to the apex. They nearly made contact, because Verstappen was going straight on. He didn’t brake extremely late – his braking was on point considering how far behind he was. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for his steering. Look at the images below, and look at Verstappen’s onboard. You can see that Verstappen is about to hit the apex, but his steering angle is far too low. He’s not turning enough and he’s not turning early enough to make the corner. You can see Hamilton’s endplate in the image, and you can see that Hamilton is very close to Verstappen.
Now take a look at Hamilton’s onboard. You can see Hamilton’s steering angle. He was not trying to hit the apex, because he didn’t expect Verstappen to fly into the corner with a steering angle as low as it was. So when the two were going through Turn 6, they nearly contact because Verstappen wasn’t turning enough to make the corner while being side-by-side.
Hamilton turned right for a second to avoid making contact. He then turned right again, but there was no way he could stay on the track. Verstappen did stay on the track, but he almost went outside the white lines. Hamilton then continued off track and went straight ahead, completely cutting Turn 7 and gaining a considerable advantage. He rejoined the track after the DRS detection line. So he didn’t just cut the corner, he kept accelerating and rejoined the track more than 50 metres after Turn 7.
Verstappen lost a lot of time to Hamilton because of that. He went on the radio, saying “He has to give that back”. Even the commentator Martin Brundle was saying that Hamilton had to give that place back. But what did the FIA say? “No Investigation Necessary”. WOW. Hamilton clearly left the track and gained a lasting advantage. Also, at no point were all 4 of Verstappen’s wheels off the track, meaning Verstappen stayed within track limits. But Hamilton went off the track and cut the corner, gaining a lasting advantage because of the gap that he gained on Verstappen. So in my opinion, Hamilton should either have been penalized or have had to give the position back.
I know that the FIA don’t want to have to come in the way of racing all the time. I also know that some agree with the decision not to investigate that battle. To some extent, I can agree with the FIA for trying not to come in the way of the on-track racing. But no investigating the incident at all? A driver can just drive off and cut the corner like that without even being investigated? This is not something I expected to see in the highest tier of motorsport. A corner cut can’t just go unpunished. And in this case, Verstappen’s car was ahead at the point where Hamilton left the track. That means Hamilton gained a position by going off the track. Let me know in the comments below, do you agree with my opinion that Hamilton should be penalised?
“Checo Is A Legend”
After Hamilton gained that advantage on the first lap, he kept stretching his gap to Verstappen. By Lap 13, Hamilton was 8.3 seconds clear, showing that he was clearly faster than Verstappen. On Lap 13, Verstappen came into the pits for a fresh set of hard tires. To cover Verstappen off, Hamilton came into the pits a lap later. He had a large gap, so he didn’t need to worry about throwing away the advantage of having medium tires. As I mentioned earlier, Verstappen started on the softs, while Hamilton started on the optimal tires to start on.
Hamilton and Verstappen pitting promoted Perez from P3 to the lead of the race. This is where Perez played the ultimate team game. I know, those are Crofty’s words, and they were perfect to describe Perez’s staunch defense. Perez stayed out of the pits and was clearly way slower than Hamilton. The Mercedes caught up to Perez by Lap 20. That’s when Red Bull came on the radio to say this to Perez: “Ok, back him up. Back him up.”
As long as Perez didn’t drive “unnecessarily slowly, erratically or in a manner which could be deemed potentially dangerous to other drivers or any other person”, he was allowed to hold Hamilton up as much as he wanted to. And that’s exactly what Perez did. Hamilton complained over the radio and called it dangerous driving, but it was completely legal.
On Lap 20, Hamilton overtook Perez down the long back straight, but Perez re-overtook Hamilton into the chicane. Hamilton did a switchback and overtook Perez as they exited the chicane, but Perez got DRS and bravely retook the lead of the race down into the long hairpin of Turn 9. Hamilton was getting frustrated, and his tires were getting worn because of all the battling. And during Lap 20, Verstappen gained 6 seconds on Hamilton and Perez!
On Lap 21, Hamilton and Perez battled into Turn 1, with Perez making his defending look effortless. Hamilton kept pushing and pushing, and he had to wait until he got DRS down the long back straight to finally overtake Perez. By then, Verstappen was 1.2 seconds behind Hamilton. Perez’s defense was absolutely legendary. He will surely go down as one of the best team players in F1!
The Biggest Controversy Of All
Before addressing the controversial end to the 2021 Abu Dhabi GP, let me explain how the two title rivals ended up in that situation. Despite closing up significantly to Hamilton, Verstappen still couldn’t match Hamilton’s pace. From Lap 22 to Lap 36, Verstappen lost 6.1 seconds to Hamilton. On Lap 33, Antonio Giovinazzi pulled over off the track due to a gearbox issue. However, he pulled over at the exit of Turn 9, so the Race Director put the race under Virtual Safety Car conditions. I don’t know why this was the case, but there was a delay in the Race Director deploying VSC conditions. It was clear that a car stopped at that part of the track can be very dangerous for drivers driving there at full speed. So why didn’t the Race Director deploy VSC conditions as soon as Giovinazzi stopped?
Anyway, the Race Director did deploy VSC conditions. This means all of the cars had to go slow, but the actual Safety Car wasn’t there on the track. Under VSC conditions, a driver loses 14 seconds by coming into the pits, rather than the 23 seconds they would lose under regular conditions. So Red Bull pulled the trigger, and Verstappen came into the pits. He put on a fresh set of hards, and as the green flag racing resumed, Verstappen had 21 laps to gain 17 seconds. Keep this in mind – he needed to gain 17 seconds to catch up to Hamilton. He needed to gain 8 tenths of a second every lap! He had nothing to lose since he was already losing the title. And knowing Red Bull they will usually go for the aggressive strategy, and that’s what they did.
Initially, things were going to plan for Verstappen. But the laps went by, and Hamilton somehow found enough pace in his old, worn hard tires. Verstappen wasn’t gaining nearly enough time on Hamilton. The commentators spoke to Christian Horner, the Red Bull Team Principal, live on TV. Horner said that Verstappen needed a miracle to win the race. And that miracle was Nicholas Latifi losing control at Turn 14 and crashing into the wall. On Lap 53, Latifi was stranded on the track after crashing into the wall, which resulted in a Safety Car. The entire field piled into the pits except for Hamilton. Verstappen switched onto a set of soft tires that were barely used. However, it looked like Verstappen wouldn’t be able to overtake Hamilton using those fresh tires.
Between Hamilton and Verstappen was a pack of 5 cars. There were the two Alpines, the McLarens of Lando Norris, the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc, and Aston Martin’s Sebastian Vettel. Hamilton had lapped these cars, but Verstappen hadn’t. The Race Director said that the lapped cars wouldn’t be allowed to overtake the Safety Car. This means that Verstappen would have to wait for those 5 cars to let him lap them before he could even start chasing after Hamilton. And since the incident happened so late in the race, it looked like we might just get one lap of racing to end this season of Formula 1. Nobody would’ve wanted to see the 2021 Abu Dhabi GP end under the Safety Car, so the FIA decided to prioritise the racing action. That’s not how F1 is supposed to work.
On Lap 57, the penultimate lap of the race, it looked like Hamilton had secured the World Championship. But as the Safety Car approached Turn 9, Race Control confirmed that those 5 lapped cars that were between Hamilton and Verstappen could overtake the Safety Car. Usually, Race Control lets all lapped cars through. And if they did that, the lapped cars would have to catch up to the Safety Car queue, and we wouldn’t get any laps of racing. But in a sudden and somewhat confusing twist, the Race Director allowed only those 5 cars to go through, and then announced that the Safety Car was ending! There was going to be one last lap of racing at the 2021 Abu Dhabi GP! And Verstappen was on fairly fresh softs, right behind Hamilton, who was on old hards!
We all know what happened next. Verstappen spared no time – he made a divebomb down into the hairpin of Turn 5 to take the lead from Hamilton. The 7-time World Champion tried his best to get his hands back on that 8th title. Hamilton tried to use the slipstream down into the chicane. Verstappen weaved around on the track. Some say that Verstappen broke the rules by doing that, but the Stewards didn’t investigate it. Hamilton didn’t have DRS, and Verstappen defended the inside line. Hamilton optimized his exit out of the chicane. He charged down the straight after the chicane, using the slipstream into Turn 9. Verstappen forced Hamilton to go around the outside of Turn 9. They almost made contact as Verstappen secured the lead and secured the World Championship. There was nothing Hamilton could do to save the title.
Verstappen went on to win the race and win the World Drivers’ Championship. He ended Lewis’s reign and denied Hamilton of that record-breaking 8th title. But he didn’t settle it on track. Verstappen didn’t win the way anyone would’ve wanted him to win. He won because of what could be seen as the most controversial decision Michael Masi has ever made since he became the Race Director.
Hamilton pretty much undeniably deserved that race win. He was clearly the fastest driver out there and had been faster than Verstappen pretty much since the lights went out. But in my opinion, Verstappen deserved the title. More often than not he was the fastest of the 20 drivers. Out of the 22 races of F1 in 2021, Verstappen finished 1st or 2nd in 18 races. The only races he didn’t finish 1st or 2nd were in Azerbaijan, Great Britain, Hungary, and Italy. 3 of those races were retirements, and in only 1 of them did he actually make a mistake. The rest of the retirements were because of an unexpected tire blowout and other drivers causing him to lose valuable points. That’s why I believe Verstappen deserved to win the championship.
But going back to the 2021 Abu Dhabi GP, was Michael Masi’s decision actually legal? Mercedes lodged two protests after the race ended. The first was saying that Verstappen overtook Hamilton before the SC line, which isn’t allowed. He did it momentarily, but he returned the position almost immediately because both drivers were going on and off the throttle. And at the Safety Car line, Verstappen was behind Hamilton, so the Stewards dismissed that protest. The 2nd protest is the more crucial one because that could’ve resulted in some serious changes.
The FIA decision document stated that “Mercedes claimed that there were two breaches of the Sporting Regulations (Article 48.12) namely that which states “..any cars that have been lapped by the leader will be required to pass the cars on the lead lap and the safety car” and “…once the last lapped car has passed the leader the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap.”
In simple terms, Mercedes claimed that the Race Director didn’t follow those regulations. Mercedes also argued that if those rules were followed Hamilton would’ve won the race. Therefore, they requested the Stewards to change the classification to the order that was there on the penultimate lap of the race. If Mercedes’ protest was successful, Hamilton would’ve been given the race win and that 8th World Championship. But unfortunately for Mercedes and Hamilton, the Stewards dismissed this protest as well.
The Race Director and Red Bull both presented their arguments against Mercedes. The Stewards allowed Red Bull representatives to attend the hearing as an “interested party”. After hearing all the arguments, the Stewards came up with a conclusion. They considered the protest as being admissible. They confirmed that the Race Director does have control over deploying and withdrawing the Safety Car. The Stewards also confirmed that Art. 48.12 may not have been applied fully in terms of Safety Car having to return to the pits “the following lap”.
However, the Stewards stated that “Article 48.13 overrides that and once the message “Safety Car in this lap” has been displayed, it is mandatory to withdraw the safety car at the end of that lap.” This was in reference to Red Bull’s arguments. Red Bull also made an important argument saying that even if all 8 lapped cars overtook the Safety Car, it wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the race. And I must say, that is true.
Lastly, the Stewards stated that they believe that changing the race classification to the order of the penultimate lap would be effectively shortening the race by using the results from before the actual end of the race, and hence not appropriate. Using this reasoning, the Stewards dismissed the Protest. Mercedes could’ve appealed the Stewards’ decision to dismiss the protest. However, appeals are a long process in court which usually takes around 2 months before there is an actual decision.
Mercedes did announce their intention to appeal, but thankfully, they didn’t go through with it. It’s a long process and if Mercedes did appeal and if their appeal was successful, Verstappen would’ve had his title taken away from him in a pretty bad ending to the season and the events of the season. It would’ve taken until a month or so into 2022 to get a final verdict, and based on the clear evidence the Stewards provided, it’s likely that Mercedes would’ve been unsuccessful.
While it would’ve been a good thing for Mercedes to choose to enjoy their 8th constructors’ title, Toto Wolff said otherwise. Toto Wolff, who is Mercedes’ Team Principal, said that Lewis and the team will “never get over” the events of the season finale. In my opinion, the drama that Mercedes have sparked and the rumors that have ensued after the Abu Dhabi GP are unnecessary.
It’s got Mercedes and Hamilton constantly in the news, which is obviously beneficial for Mercedes because they’ll be trending on social media and get more reach on platforms. I don’t feel it’s as significant for the sport and the future of the sport as some believe it is. I’m sure that since Lewis has been pushed so far in 2021, and he’s had some of his best career performances in 2021, he would continue in F1 in 2022 and beyond to chase after that 8th title.
The fact that the situation came so close to an appeal is just ridiculous. I already wrote about how the FIA needs to sort themselves out in the 2021 Saudi Arabian GP Race Review. Michael Masi has become very unpopular among F1 fans because of some of his controversial decisions and repeated incompetence. The Stewards in F1 have been called out many times by many people for being too inconsistent. So the FIA really need to sort this out and find out their weaknesses. Thankfully, the FIA have launched a much-needed investigation to analyse and clarify the Sporting Regulations after the 2021 Abu Dhabi GP. Hopefully, we don’t face these issues in 2022. But I have a feeling that this isn’t the last of the controversy we’re going to see from the Stewards’ and the Race Director’s decisions.
Sainz The Smooth Operator
Let’s end the final race review of 2021 on a positive note. Carlos Sainz ended a fantastic season with Ferrari with a podium at the 2021 Abu Dhabi GP. Sainz scoring this podium secured P4 in the Drivers’ Championship for him. That means he was the best driver apart from the Red Bull and Mercedes drivers. Ferrari also secured best of the rest in the Constructors’ Championship. In the first half of the season, McLaren were clearly faster than Ferrari. Lando Norris was performing exceptionally well. But in the 2nd half of the season, i.e. in the last 10 races of the season, Ferrari nailed their consistency game. I talked about this in the 2021 Brazilian GP Race Review.
McLaren had some outstanding performances. Look at the 2021 Italian GP – McLaren scored a 1-2 finish because of which they gained 25 points on Ferrari. But in the Netherlands, Turkey, Mexico, Brazil, Qatar, and finally, in Abu Dhabi, McLaren scored less than 10 points. Yet Ferrari scored more than 10 points in every single race after the 2021 Belgian GP.
Carlos Sainz as a driver has really excelled in his first year with Ferrari. He scored 164.5 points, which is 59.5 more than he scored last year with McLaren. He outperformed Charles Leclerc, albeit by only 5.5 points. Charles Leclerc was Ferrari’s main man last year, yet he scored less than Sainz. Sainz also beat Lando Norris. He beat Norris by a slim 4.5 points, despite Norris scoring 4 podiums this year.
The key to Sainz’s success is consistency. It’s true – he only failed to score points in 3 races this year. On many occasions, Norris scored 1 or 2 points, especially in the last few races of the season. Leclerc scored 0 points on 4 occasions in 2021 and scored only 1 point in the season finale. Sainz scored 4 podiums in 2021, while Leclerc only scored 1. You can see from these stats that while Sainz was consistent, he also had outstanding performances, and that helped him beat his rivals in an incredibly strong season for him. This is something nobody would expect from a driver in his first season with a team. The podium in the season finale was the perfect finish to a fantastic season of Formula 1 for Carlos Sainz.
Well, it’s finally time to end the final Race Review of 2021. The 2021 F1 Season has had pretty much everything. It’s been a season full of mind-blowing events. There have been intense battles, both on and off the track. For the first time since 2016, there’s been a title battle that was actually close. It’s been a rollercoaster of racing and emotions this year, and although I can’t believe that this journey is actually over, I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s ready to recharge their batteries over the winter break ahead of the new generation of Formula 1. Stay safe, stay on the lookout for our winter content, and enjoy F1ntastic!!