The 2021 Formula 1 season is an all timer, in that there will be no debate. It’s an accomplishment enough to have more than one driver in contention to win the World Drivers’ Championship for the entire season let alone what we saw this time around. Max Verstappen and seven time World Champion Lewis Hamilton entered the final Grand Prix at Abu Dhabi deadlocked in points with Verstappen holding a tiebreaker in season race victories. After an exciting qualifying day on Saturday giving Verstappen the pole and Hamilton the 2nd starting spot on different tire compounds, millions of worldwide viewers knew this race would likely be a treat. With other forms of sport and motorsport endlessly fiddling with their rules and point structures to “guarantee” the excitement of a season’s end, it seemed F1 was doing it the hard way and giving the fans a nailbiter without the background noise of engineered excitement. Fate is a funny, cruel old mistress however and despite our best intentions the governing body was presented with the opportunity to fudge their way to an exciting finish late in the race and my friends, they jumped in with both feet. Just what the hell happened, and what does this mean going into 2022?
As soon as “lights out” for the Grand Prix at Abu Dhabi we could see that Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes were working with the upper hand, and racing from a position of strength. Turn 6 of lap one Max Verstappen made a brave pass attempt that caused Lewis Hamilton to run wide and essentially cut the majority of the chicane to continue growing his lead. The FIA decided to take no action on this, and while it probably wouldn’t make the Top 10 of controversial moments this season alone, it set an interesting tone for the rest of the race. Despite Red Bull’s best efforts, Hamilton looked damn near untouchable for most of the Grand Prix. Lewis was driving a brilliant race that wouldn’t require much pit strategy so long as nothing unplanned happened on track. By lap 37/58 however, nothing went to plan for anyone involved. A rather uneventful disabled car removal for Antonio Giovinazzi was made more interesting as Red Bull chose to pit Verstappen with brand new tires under the Virtual Safety Car while Mercedes chose to keep Hamilton on track. While Max had notably fresher tires, Lewis was still keeping good pace, lapping slower cars and keeping the gap to Verstappen well over 10 seconds with 5 or so laps to go. Just when it looked like Lewis Hamilton had that 8th championship in hand, the F1 landscape would be changed forever.
With 5 laps to go Williams driver Nicholas Latifi spun and struck the wall after contact on track, genuinely surprising us all as the race had featured very little contact from stem to stern. Still, a full Safety Car (full course caution with a pace car) was rightly called and questions would arise about if (and more importantly how) the Grand Prix would restart before running out of laps. To the track crew’s credit the Williams car was cleared quickly and there was just barely enough time to restart. Again, Red Bull with nothing to lose pitted Verstappen for a set of soft compound tires, but as it sat on track had 5 lapped cars between he and race leader Hamilton.
Before we get too deep here, let me say that I am NOT a rules expert, but I have a fairly decent understanding of how an F1 race would operate in most scenarios. Depending on a number of factors, the FIA governing body could make a choice to either allow all lapped cars to wave around the leader and safety car, or simply keep everyone in line. Time was running out and with lapped cars between AND behind the leading cars, it was believed that everyone would stay in place and Verstappen would have to pass 5 cars in less than one lap before getting to the leader. However just before the end of the penultimate lap, the 5 cars between the leaders were waved around and the race was set to start with one lap to go. With Hamilton on ancient hard tires and Verstappen on softs of a much newer vintage…the rest as they say, is history. While Mercedes boss Toto Wolff cursed the FIA a blue streak and made his protests known, Max Verstappen passed Lewis Hamilton to win the race and his first F1 World Driver’s Championship in the most exciting of fashions.
The feelings of most fans as it happened seemed to be of a binary nature. You were either excited beyond belief or frustrated beyond all recognition, with very little opinion falling in between. For me, as a fan of motorsport in that moment, I was elated. The back of my head was throbbing from the excitement and my wife, who has a passive interest in televised motorsports at best, was even on the edge of her seat when I exclaimed that the lapped cars were getting waved around. Was it the right thing to do? Well that’s a difficult question unless you’re a true-blue Lewis Hamilton fan. As the rules are widely understood, those lapped cars shouldn’t have been waved around unless ALL lapped cars could do it, which couldn’t have happened before running out of laps. The FIA, as represented by the race director Michael Masi, made a conscious effort to provide the consumers of the product as exciting a finish as possible, and in that respect succeeded in the effort.
To put it simply, the FIA and F1 cut corners in their own procedure to put the leaders together for a one lap shootout. As a racing moment, it was deliberate. In my heart of hearts I don’t think there’s some great conspiracy to give Red Bull or Verstappen a championship or to deny Hamilton his 8th. Had Lewis magically fought Max off and stayed in front, as an industry they would have been just as pleased with the result. From the Mercedes perspective however, I can understand how it feels that they were absolutely hosed. Maybe they could have changed tires, but there was no indication that they wouldn’t have had some sort of buffer until just before the last lap began. Again though, had the shoe been on the other foot with Mercedes in 2nd, I don’t think the FIA would have done anything different. It’s a fool’s errand to think about every lucky or unlucky break over the years, but both Mercedes and Red Bull, Hamilton and Verstappen, have seen things go both ways.
Formula 1 is ushering in a new era in 2022. A new car with changes to wheels, tires, aero and downforce is promised to give exciting racing that much of the “formula” style of racing worldwide is starting to embrace. If the 2021 season is any indication however, the race procedures could see an overhaul as well to possibly provide more of these legendary moments. For all its inconsistency and controversy, Formula 1 and its finale are on the lips of millions more people than it was this time last year. F1 got a taste of the viral “game 7” moment that we cherish when it naturally occurs in America, and there’s a very real possibility this thinking will continue into future seasons. The measure above all else to a business is money, and with what we have now, the urge to keep it coming this way will be irresistible. Most racing fans treasure something a little more precious however, and belief in what’s happening on track is important. There’s a big difference in just “watching” something and believing in it, and I don’t know how many executives are aware of that. Millions of people still watch NASCAR, but it seems less people “believe” in the on track product from season to season. If Formula 1 isn’t careful, there could be many of its most loyal fans that feel the same way. Both brands of racing are entering a new era in 2022, and I hope all involved do what it takes to keep our BELIEF as well as our money. It’s called a motor race, and may it live on forever. See you next season.