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Simon Strang

In the most controversial end to any F1 season in history, Mercedes- AMG secures a record-breaking eighth Constructors’ title, while a contentious FIA call denies Lewis Hamilton the Drivers’ Championship

You may be among the millions of new fans who witnessed their first Formula 1 World Championship showdown under the Yas Marina lights in Abu Dhabi. If you were, you might wonder why you left it so long to get hooked into such a gripping, dynamic, and exhilarating spectacle. Almost certainly you would have felt polarized, intrigued, confused, excited, angered and exhausted at some point through the climax of the most extraordinary season in the history of the 71-year-old contest. But, in the end, whether by accident or design, sadly what you witnessed was the need for entertainment smudging the great purity of sport.

The champions

The 2021 Formula 1 world champion is Max Verstappen, and he deserves to be. He and his Red Bull Racing team defeated the might of seven-time world champion Sir Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes-AMG F1 with a Honda-powered RB16B car that led the way (marginally) from the beginning and remained a competitive force throughout. No matter what your take on the Dutchman’s uncompromising on-track approach during the longest-ever F1 campaign (22 races), or his openly provocative off-track style as the tension ramped up, Verstappen’s speed and tenacity are undeniable, and his talent is worthy of one who calls himself champion.

But, the manner in which he clinched his first world champion’s title will be forever in question, and that is neither his fault nor that of Hamilton, who was knighted by Prince Charles at Windsor Castle in the same week that Mercedes-AMG Petronas was officially crowned Manufacturers’ world champion for a record eighth time. Instead, the FIA – the sport’s governing body – and its appointed Race Director Michael Masi, created an air of lasting confusion and frustration by choosing to override precedent and instigate a scenario not seen before, to ensure that the season didn’t end behind the Safety Car. The result was a one-lap sprint that allowed a fresh-tired Verstappen to pass a hitherto comfortably leading Hamilton (who was essentially rendered a sitting duck by the decision), and thus claim the title along with his tenth victory of the season.

The final phase of Hamilton’s campaign was one of emphatic all-round superiority, personal growth, and in the end, sheer class. Hamilton won three out of the last four grands prix, and was on course to complete the set until the last lap in Abu Dhabi, a race he’d controlled until the aforementioned incident. Watching him compose himself in the moments afterwards was a lesson in humility. The heartbreak and sense of unfairness must have been acute inside his rainbow-colored helmet.

The controversy

In a championship that provoked more-or-less open warfare between Mercedes and Red Bull on and off the track, this climax was unpalatable. Through the build-up to the finale, F1 had become dinner table conversation around the world. It was no longer a requirement for anyone to be an aficionado to have an opinion, millions of which were projected across social media this year (for good and for bad). And this, unquestionably, is a fantastic thing for F1. In the United Kingdom alone, more than seven million people tuned in to watch the finale live. It was critical therefore that we had a clean race, that the winner was incontrovertible, and that F1 was able to celebrate its most glorious moment in front of a new, hard-earned and undeniably Netflix-influenced audience. 

Instead, we got the opposite.

As this correspondent writes, the result remains open to an appeal by Mercedes, which launched two official protests in the immediate aftermath of the race. One to point out that Verstappen had momentarily passed the leader Hamilton behind the Safety Car, and the other to contest Race Direction did not follow its own sporting code by implementing a new protocol. Both were thrown out by the stewards of the meeting, but Mercedes persisted with the latter, issuing notice of its intention to apply to the FIA Court of Appeal. It was widely considered that it had a strong case to answer, though it was difficult to see how Verstappen and Red Bull should be punished when they did nothing wrong.

Shifting sands

Inconsistent and surprising stewarding decisions were a hallmark of 2021. In the final four races of the campaign, they became a critical psychological factor for both contenders and by the time the teams pitched up in Brazil for Round 19, the atmosphere was caustic, every opportunity weaponized to heap on the pressure. Hamilton, trailing Verstappen by 19 points and his back against the wall, thrives in such siege conditions. The frequent attacks by Red Bull on and off the track, combined with a seemingly endless stream of penalty decisions and admonishments going against him, was met with perhaps his greatest drive. Hamilton’s performance at Interlagos, where he overtook every driver in the field (and some more than once) over the Sprint race and grand prix proper, was in the style of Juan Manuel Fangio. He rose above his contemporaries and was simply imperious.

Brazil marked the last of the so-called “Sprint” qualifying rounds, comprising a standard qualifying session on Friday afternoon, followed by a 24-lap Sprint race on Saturday with points for the first three finishers that also decided the grid order for Sunday’s start..

Hamilton qualified on pole for the Sprint by 0.4s over Verstappen, having taken a fresh power unit and a grid penalty of five places, but he was ultimately thrown to the back after his rear-wing was found to be faulty and exceeded the allowed 85mm slot gap Drag Reduction System opening. Verstappen, bizarrely, made a point of manually investigating the system in Parc Ferme and was also fined $50,000 for his trouble. The incident occurred against a backdrop of insinuations from Red Bull’s team principal Christian Horner who had suspicions about Mercedes’ rear wing, such was Hamilton’s speed advantage down the straight. This was never proven, and the wing passed more stringent FIA tests in subsequent races.

Hamilton’s charge from the back of the grid in the Sprint was ruthless. Having reduced the field to little more than video game drones, he dove down the inside of Lando Norris to nail fifth on the last lap. It was simply breathtaking. An embattled Mercedes Team Principal Toto Woolf declared down the radio: “Lewis great job, damage limitation. <Expletive> them all.”

“Copy. It’s not over yet,” was the reply.

The final pole position of Valtteri Bottas' Mercedes career almost went unnoticed. The Finn got the jump on Verstappen at the start of the Sprint and maintained his lead thereafter. In the race proper, the pair reversed this scenario with Verstappen edging Bottas on to the grass and costing the Finn enough momentum and grip that he then ran wide and let Sergio Perez through in the sister Red Bull at Turn 4.

Hamilton once again made light work of the field to make his way up to third by Lap 5. It took a while to pass Perez, who executed his role of tailgunner with verve, before finally Hamilton set about hunting down Verstappen. On Lap 48 Hamilton made his move, feinting left and then going right, down the outside of the Dutchman on the long run down to Turn 4. But Verstappen’s  Red Bull didn’t slow into the braking zone and forged back ahead, its wide turning arc running both cars off track.

Red Bull immediately got on the radio to Masi to claim the incident as an example of the Race Director’s policy of "let them race." Indeed, the stewards concluded no investigation was required, but Hamilton had been forced to back out, once again, to avoid a collision with Verstappen and both had ended up off the track. Some defensive weaving followed over the next 10 laps before Hamilton nailed the Red Bull properly at the same place, forcing Verstappen to go defensive into the Esses and costing him vital momentum on the exit. Wolff’s jubilant reaction into the camera will fuel memes for years to come.

Mercedes called for a review into Verstappen’s tactics at Turn 4, when onboard video from the Red Bull became available the following day. By the end of the bruising weekend, Wolff was moved to comment that "diplomacy was over." Hamilton, meanwhile, had reduced the points deficit to 14. 

He was on target.

Whose line is it anyway?

The controversies rolled on to Qatar a week later as F1 and its drivers delighted in Losail’s fast, high-grip, sweeping layout. Horner arrived at the circuit equipped with photographic evidence of what he believed were score marks from the main plane of the Mercedes rear wing in Brazil. This culminated in a tense stand-off in an official press conference between the Red Bull team boss and Wolff, who suggested he was looking at ghosts.

Elsewhere in the paddock, the behind-closed-doors drivers’ briefing with Masi centered on driving standards and clarity on what constitutes a fair pass. This ended in confusion, with most drivers reporting they were no clearer after Mercedes’ request for a re-evaluation of Verstappen’s Brazil maneuver was dismissed.

“At the end of the day, we all want to race hard,” Grand Prix Drivers’ Association Director and 2022 Mercedes driver George Russell said, “but [Verstappen] was hard and unfair.” Hamilton added, “It’s still not clear what the limits of the track are, it’s clearly not the white line anymore.”

Masi said, “We’ve given them some overall guidance, but also been very clear on the fact that each and every case will be judged on its merits.”

In the end though, none of it would matter at Losail where Hamilton dominated from start to finish. He was aided by the fact that Verstappen picked up a five-place grid penalty for ignoring double-waved yellow flags in Q3. The championship leader went on to recover to second, some 25 seconds behind Hamilton, the duo another 30 seconds clear of third place Fernando Alonso.

Verstappen doesn’t believe in momentum, but it seemed undeniable that the natural inertia of the title fight was shifting towards Hamilton. The fact that the Briton won so emphatically while also switching back to an older engine for this race, was an ominous message to his rivals, “They have awoken the lion,” intimated Wolff.

Arabian knights

If that was indeed the case, then the second new F1 venue in as many weeks proved to be the lion’s den. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah circuit is a scintillatingly fast and "unnecessarily dangerous" street track, and it played host to perhaps one of the most bad-tempered grands prix spectacles in living memory.

Hamilton headed up a Mercedes one-two on the grid with his 103rd career pole. But it could easily have gone to Verstappen, whose final flyer would have been the lap of the season had he not clouted the wall on the exit of the last corner. So Hamilton led the way until Mick Schumacher crashed at the super-fast Turn 22 and triggered a safety car on Lap 9. Both Mercedes pitted for new Pirellis, and Bottas cheekily slowed up to allow a double-stack in the pits, justifiably infuriating the delayed Verstappen. The Dutchman chose not to pit, and this paid off when the race was then red-flagged, handing him a free switch to fresh hard tires, while maintaining his new lead.

At the restart, Lewis took his sweet time coming to the line, there being no rule defining the time of grid formation for a restart. Verstappen lost tire temperature and the lead away from the lights. But not one to hand out a free pass, he clung to the outside on the entry of the first corner chicane, running over the kerb on the inside and forcing Hamilton wide. This allowed Esteban Ocon’s fast-starting Alpine to slip by into second, past Lewis. Moments later Perez and Charles Leclerc collided, causing a larger four-car shunt and prompting another red flag.

F1’s audience was then given an insight into the kind of discussion that goes on between team management and F1’s race direction. “I’m going to give you the opportunity, based on what happened at Turn 1, 2. We will drop you back behind Hamilton [to third on the grid]. That is my offer.” Masi told Red Bull; an attempt to prevent the stewards investigating Verstappen once the race restarted. One must wonder if using terminology such as "offer" is sensible? In sport, competitors should not be given authority to adjudicate their own penalty.

Red Bull took the deal and Verstappen grabbed his chance at the restart, sensationally slamming down the inside at Turn 1, forcing Hamilton to the center of the corner entry and into Ocon, who inadvertently broke the Briton’s front right wing. Nonplussed, Lewis passed Ocon on the next lap and set off after Verstappen.

By Lap 37, Hamilton had lined up Verstappen and went for the outside of the Red Bull into Turn 1. The Dutchman employed his now familiar tactic of running off the track on the exit of the apex, forcing Lewis out of road. Having got away with it in Brazil, he was understandably perplexed to be asked to hand the place back "tactically" by his race engineer on this occasion. “In Brazil it was fine and now suddenly I get a penalty for it.”

“The guy is crazy,” claimed Hamilton. It was all becoming a little desperate.

What happened next was flabbergasting as the pair collided in confusion when Verstappen lifted and then braked hard on the back straight to allow the Mercedes past. Hamilton, late to be informed of the switch, was initially confused by Verstappen’s driving. When he realised, he tried to avoid the switch taking place ahead of the DRS activation line. It was clumsy, ridiculous, and could have been avoided by clearer instruction from race control. Verstappen would receive a post-race 10-second penalty for the 2.4g sudden deceleration.

Five laps later, Verstappen slowed to allow Hamilton to pass. Hamilton now had a significantly damaged front wing. Then Verstappen used the DRS to retake the lead, just prior to being given a 5-second penalty for his earlier Turn 1 maneuver. His race run, and his tires shot, Verstappen finally let Lewis by into the final corner, and this time it was Hamilton who was cautioned for running the Red Bull wide on the exit.

Afterwards, with the points levelled at 369.5 each and now on a run of three victories, Hamilton was quick to point to a state of motivation within the Mercedes F1 squad that he had never seen before, emphatically underlined as Bottas snatched third from Ocon just over the finish line to all but secure the constructors’ crown for the Brackley team.

“I think today I saw a passion and excitement in my team that in 10 years I don’t think I’ve seen,” he said. “It’s amazing.”

His words for Verstappen were less charitable: “From my understanding, I know that I can’t overtake someone and go off the track and then keep the position. I think that’s well known between us drivers, but it doesn’t apply to one of us, I guess.”

Verstappen, for his part, remained defiant. “Lately we’re talking more about penalties than actually proper F1 racing, and that’s a bit of shame.”

Certainly everyone shared his view, but perhaps not from the same perspective.

Shocking showdown

The 2021 Formula 1 racing season was absolutely brilliant. The lead  in the drivers’ championship changed hands five times between the two best drivers in the world. It culminated in the 30th title-deciding race in the history of the sport and Abu Dhabi has hosted four of them. 

And for the first time since 1974 when Emerson Fittipaldi beat Clay Regazzoni, both contenders started the finale with equal points.

Lewis took the lead at the start, his medium tires giving him less wheelspin than poleman Verstappen’s softs. And while he momentarily lost it to a brilliant move by Max at Turn 5, he regained it by running wide over the runoff between Turns 5 and 6. Surprisingly, he was allowed to keep the place. After that he was in control. Red Bull snatched their chances where they could, triggering the first round of stops with Verstappen switching to hard tires, while Perez stayed out to play interference ahead of Hamilton, bringing the Dutchman back within two seconds of the Mercedes after dropping nearly 10 seconds behind.

Hamilton passed Perez and rebuilt his initiative but a Virtual Safety Car period on Lap 35 allowed Verstappen a cheap stop to take on fresh hard tires, while Hamilton had to stay out on his old set to protect his track position. Initially he questioned this logic, with engineer Pete Bonnington telling him Verstappen would need to be 0.8 seconds per lap quicker to the end of the race to catch him.

Hamilton countered that with his usual blend of supernatural pace on old tires and wily traffic management. Things were under control. “I wouldn’t have caught him,” admitted Verstappen afterwards.

And then Nicolas Latifi crashed his Williams at Turn 14 on Lap 53, with five to go, triggering a Safety Car. Red Bull immediately pitted Verstappen for softs, leaving Mercedes with little choice but to stay out, safe in the knowledge that the race was A) unlikely to return to green before the end and B) that they would lose the lead to Verstappen even if they did pit.

Moreover, race control confirmed that lapped traffic would not be able to pass the leader before a restart, so if there was time for another racing lap, there would be a buffer between Hamilton and Verstappen.

Horner then lobbied Masi over the radio, "can we get this traffic out of the way, we only need one racing lap.” And suddenly it all changed. Against precedent, race control called for only the five cars between Hamilton and Verstappen to pass the Safety Car, but not the other three that lay between the Red Bull and third-placed Carlos Sainz. Almost instantly the dynamic changed as teams were informed on Lap 57 that the race would go green for Lap 58. And just like that, Hamilton’s advantage had not only gone, he’d been rendered defenseless through no fault of his own. A championship that had run neck and neck for more than 44 hours of racing across six continents through 22 weekends had been decided by a steward’s call.

Article 48.12 of the sporting regulations states that "once the last lapped car has passed the leader, the Safety Car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap." This didn’t happen. Instead with only the cars between Hamilton and Verstappen cleared, we had a new protocol.

Masi was under pressure to get the race back under way, time was short, and inevitably there were multiple channels of dialogue in play during the clear-up of an accident. Safety is Masi's primary function in situations like this. Not to mention the importance of this moment, of all moments. He made a difficult call, in an extremely tough job. Another call might have been to red flag the race when Latifi crashed, then both Hamilton and Verstappen would have access to fresh tires in a fight to the flag. That might have been harsh on Lewis, but either of the two options not chosen would have been fairer than the one we got.

The stewards argued that Masi had the power to override the Safety Car protocol. "Although article 48.12 may not have been applied fully, in relation to the safety car returning to the pits at the end of the following lap, 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.”

Mercedes-AMG plainly disagreed with that interpretation. "No Michael, no! This is absolutely not right,” cried Wolff in the heat of the moment. Hamilton said over the radio "this has been manipulated, man." 

But by then it was all too late. 

Still We Rise

As Verstappen and Red Bull celebrated around him, Hamilton sat motionless in the cockpit of his W12 in Parc Ferme. His humility was uplifting, and he and his father Anthony were among the first to congratulate Verstappen and his own father Jos. His dignity in the immediate aftermath was one of the few sporting positives to draw from it all. 

“A big congratulations to Max and to his team,” he said. “I think we did an amazing job this year. My team, everyone back at the factory, all the men and women we have, and here, have worked so hard this whole year. I’m so proud of them, so grateful to be part of the journey with them.”

In the days after Mercedes maintained a resolute silence beyond its declaration of intent to appeal, having taken barrister Paul Harris QC to see the stewards to make its case post-race, which was dismissed.

Even the FIA itself on the Wednesday after the race admitted that the events had "tarnished the sport’s image" and that it would conduct a detailed analysis and clarification exercise. A tacit admission, if one was needed, that things had gone awry. All sides added that Masi was not wholly to blame, under phenomenal pressure and that procedures needed amending.

Much has to be done to clarify and simplify F1’s sporting regulations and their implementation moving forwards if manufacturers and multinationals are to continue to commit massive budgets to the sport. Moreover, the faith and trust of the millions of new fans must be recovered rapidly so as not to allow this controversy to fester – it must start with strong and robust stewarding on a fair and consistent basis. Anything less will only damage the sport further, but more importantly, is simply unfair on the competitors.

Hamilton’s crash helmet went through many variations of color through 2021. It came within a single lap of protecting its owner to a historic eighth world drivers’ title. But through it all, inscribed within the champion’s livery were the words, "Still We Rise."