Red Bull’s Max Verstappen won the 2021 Formula 1 world championship after passing Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton for the lead on the last lap of a scarcely believable Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday.
In a climax befitting one of the most dramatic and enthralling seasons in F1 history, Hamilton had led comfortably until a late-race safety car period wiped his lead out and allowed Verstappen to pit for a new set of soft compound tyres.
After the stricken Williams of Nicholas Latifi was removed, the safety car peeled in to allow for one final lap under racing conditions, but race director Michael Masi controversially allowed the lapped cars sitting on track between Hamilton and Verstappen to overtake the safety car, meaning the two title rivals entered the race’s final lap nose to tail.
Mercedes felt aggrieved at Masi’s decision, believing that the lapped cars should not have been able to overtake, as is normal practise, and it appeared as if Masi had changed his initial decision at short notice.
With vastly superior grip from his fresher rubber and no backmarkers in the way, Verstappen dived up the inside of Hamilton at turn five and held on to win a race he had not led a single lap of up to that point.
For his part, Hamilton had entered the weekend with the wind in his sails, coming off the back of three wins in a row for the first time this season.
The Briton’s run of good form meant he and Verstappen started the race absolutely level on points – the first time two F1 title rivals have been deadlocked ahead of the last race since 1974.
Though Verstappen grabbed pole position on Saturday, Hamilton made by far the better start and took the lead at turn one, despite Verstappen’s best efforts to overtake him at the hairpin.
Settling down in the lead, Hamilton appeared to have an answer for everything Verstappen and Red Bull could throw at him, including having Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez hold him up to allow the Dutchman to close on the Mercedes.
However, just when it seemed as if Hamilton would win the race and take a record eighth world title, Latifi spun into the barriers to bring out the safety car and set up the grandstand finale.
“It’s unbelievable. Throughout the whole race I kept fighting and to have an opportunity on the last lap, it’s incredible,” said Verstappen afterwards.
“My team know I love them and I hope we can do this for 10-15 years together. There’s no reason to change ever, I want to stay with them for the rest of my life. I hope they let me.”
“[Team boss] Christian [Horner] and [special advisor] Helmut [Marko] trusted me to be in the team in 2016, our goal was to be world champion and now we’ve done that.”
Hamilton was magnanimous in defeat after a race in which he had not put a foot wrong.
“Congratulations to Max and to his team. I think we did an amazing job this year. My team have worked so hard this whole year, it’s been the most difficult of seasons. I’m so proud of them and I’m so grateful to be a part of the journey with them.”
Behind the top two, Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz took third, with the twin AlphaTauris of Yuki Tsunoda and Pierre Gasly finishing a strong fourth and fifth.
Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas finished a disappointing sixth in his last race for Mercedes, with McLaren’s Lando Norris taking seventh. The Alpines finished eighth and ninth, with Fernando Alonso ahead of Esteban Ocon, and Sainz’s teammate Charles Leclerc rounded out the top ten.
Some consolation for Mercedes came as the Silver Arrows sealed the constructors’ championship for a record-extending eighth year in succession, with Red Bull second and Ferrari third.
The 2022 Formula 1 season begins with the Bahrain Grand Prix on March 20, where the cars are set to look and perform very differently, as teams will have a brand new set of technical regulations to abide by.
But the 2021 season will live long in the memory of everyone who watched one of the most dramatic, controversial and enthralling years the sport has known since its inception in 1950.