New world champion Verstappen takes victory in a controversial finale

Abu Dhabi Race Report

Forget the championship going down to the last race, it went down to the very last lap.

After a blistering qualifying lap Verstappen lined up on pole with the seemingly faster Mercedes of Hamilton in second. The two championship contenders are together on the front row for the showdown.

Verstappen got a slightly slow start and Hamilton moved into first position off the line. Verstappen then dives up the inside of Hamilton into turn six, leaving the Brit with nowhere to go. Hamilton, therefore, has to cut the corner and re-enters in front of Verstappen. Red Bull believes Hamilton has gained an advantage and should give Verstappen the position because he was ahead in the corner. Mercedes think Verstappen left Hamilton no room and therefore no choice but to cut the corner to avoid a collision. Hamilton drops back a little to cut the advantage gained from missing that corner and, controversially, the FIA decides that is enough—Hamilton retains the lead. Further back Norris drops a few positions, from the start—as does Bottas—whereas Perez, Tsunoda, and both Ferrari’s make gains on the opening lap.

It soon becomes very clear that the Mercedes has a much better race pace than the Red Bull—despite the latter being on the faster tyres—and Hamilton begins to pull away from his championship rival.

Verstappen pits on lap fourteen for new tyres, Mercedes bring Hamilton in a lap after, to avoid any possible advantage Red Bull may get from being on fresher tyres. This leaves Perez in the lead of the race. Hamilton steadily catches the sister Red Bull and Perez is asked to hold him up so Verstappen can catch up to him. Perez does not disappoint, putting in an amazing defense he and Hamilton go wheel to wheel for two laps, the Mexican showing his driving skills and team dedication, holding up Hamilton for more like ten seconds than the requested two. As this battle rages Verstappen is pushing on behind and catching up.

Barring safety cars it’s a pretty solid one-stop race at Abu Dhabi. These start on lap eleven and continue through to lap thirty-one. These spread-out stops mean there’s some shuffling going on in the mid-field. It’s tricky to overtake here, so tyre strategy becomes even more important. Alonso and Gasly do a long first stint on harder tyres—slowly moving up the order as others take their pit stop. Sainz, Norris, Leclerc, and Tsunoda all seem to have solid pace throughout the race, slightly faster than Ocon and Ricciardo who sit outside the top ten. There’s not a huge amount of action on track in the midfield with the difficulty in overtaking. Saying that Bottas and Leclerc do have a good battle, the Ferrari keeping the faster Mercedes at bay for several laps in an impressive defensive drive. Later on, we also see Tsunoda and Alonso have a great battle on track with the Alpha Tauri of Tsunoda coming out on top. We see some retirees too—Raikkonen, on his final outing in an F1 car—retires with brake issues, Russell, on his final outing for Williams, too pulls into the garage with a technical issue. Giovinnazzi—also in his last F1 drive—pulls over to the side of the track on lap 35, resulting in a Virtual Safety Car (VSC) period.

Simply put a VSC means drivers have to slow down and drive to a set speed, making it safer for marshals to deal with an incident. This can give a cheap pit stop to drivers if they chose to use it—as you lose less time pitting under VSC than under normal racing conditions. Red Bull takes this option and brings Verstappen in, who comes out eighteen seconds behind rival Hamilton—but on much fresher—and therefore faster—tyres.

Despite the fresher tyres, Verstappen is just unable to catch Hamilton, who has had the better car and pace today. Everything seems set for a deserved Hamilton victory at Abu Dhabi—and therefore a record-breaking eighth world championship. With ten laps to go, Christian Honer—Red Bull’s team principal—quite rightly says they need a miracle. Well, Canada hears your call, Christian Horner! After battling with Schumacher for fourteenth position Latifi runs wide—getting dirt on his tyres. These tyres cannot then grip as they should and the Williams ends up in the wall. With a stricken car and debris on the track, a safety car is called with only five laps of the race remaining.

Mercedes don’t really have the option to pit Hamilton—if they do Red Bull could react by keeping Verstappen out and taking a guaranteed victory if the race finishes under the safety car—as it looks like it very well may. Red Bull—seeing Hamilton stay out, and hoping the race will restart—bring Verstappen in for a fresh set of the fastest soft tyres. Under the safety car, the drivers are all bunched up—therefore Verstappen no longer has to catch Hamilton—he merely needs to pass him, if we go racing again. With so few laps left it’s unclear whether the race will restart again, the marshals do a great job and Latifi’s car is quickly cleared, but we still have to wait for lapped cars to be allowed to pass the safety car…no we don’t, actually yes we do, no scrap that, just a few of them. Confused? Well, as was everyone!

Basically, cars form behind the safety car as they come across it—so you may get the leader just behind a backmarker that they were going to lap for instance. When the incident is cleared, and the track safe, these lapped cars are allowed past so the queue that forms is the race order and lapped cars are out of the way of the main action. There’s normally an additional lap behind the safety car to let these cars get clear, or even catch the back of the train if it’s possible. This is not necessarily mandatory, but the rule has been applied in this way for years, and always applied in the same way. All lapped cars pass. However, the race director initially said that this would not happen—which is odd in itself. Then he rescinded this, saying the lapped cars would be allowed to pass. But what actually happened was only five of the eight lapped cars were given the go-ahead to pass the safety car, specifically the five cars between Verstappen and Hamilton—none of the ones further back. Utterly bizarre and completely unprecedented. Consequentially, we have a one-lap showdown, Verstappen on brand new much faster tyres behind race leader Hamilton on very old tyres. Ultimately this is no contest at all—despite Hamilton putting up an incredible defense around half of the lap, it is an impossible task to keep those fresh tyres behind, and Verstappen blasts past to take the race victory and therefore the world championship.

A controversial, bizarre, and nail-biting finish to a season that has been all of those things and more. So perhaps in a way, it was rather fitting!

Now, Mercedes are going to appeal this race result—the technicalities of which I’ll delve further into later on. But, the gist is that normally the safety car is deployed, when it is safe, lapped cars are allowed to unlap themselves, one lap after that the safety car comes in. That’s not what happened here—not all lapped cars were given the go-ahead to unlap themselves, and the safety car didn’t stay out for the additional lap. Forgetting the top two for a moment, why weren’t the lapped cars between Verstappen and Sainz allowed to unlap themselves? Sainz was on much older tyres, but still, why wasn’t he given a shot at fighting for second against Verstappen? Why was Ricciardo—in twelfth—not allowed to unlap himself when Vettel—in eleventh—was? So Ricciardo was denied a chance of fighting for position on the last lap. Granted I understand this wasn’t for a points-scoring position, but it’s the principle. The FIA seems to have set a precedent here where they can decide which cars can fight and which can’t. Which is utterly bizarre. To me, it seems maybe the FIA were so desperate for a one-lap spectacular showdown that it made them delve into the grey areas of the rules to ensure that that’s what they got.

All that should not take away from what was one of the most enthralling F1 seasons with epic performances from both championship contenders, who, to be honest, both deserved to take the title.

Verstappen has been blisteringly fast this season, and a big congratulations to him and the Red Bull team. Hamilton showed true sportsmanly conduct congratulating Verstappen after—arguable—being denied the championship through an FIA decision.

A deeper delve into that decision and those regulations

That decision—by the race director—will be picked apart in minute detail in the upcoming weeks, months even perhaps.

Mercedes—correctly in my opinion—protested the result. The FIA, unsurprisingly, found that the FIA acted correctly—and upheld the result. (Why do we allow the FIA to be the people to investigate the FIA?) Mercedes will almost certainly appeal this and the lawsuit will rumble on and on. The FIA will be very reluctant to overturn an on-track result, especially one which is already so dramatic, divisive, and controversial.

It all falls down to fine nuances within the rules, but basically, Mercedes complained about two things—firstly Verstappen passing Hamilton under the safety car. You can see the Red Bull driver hustling Hamilton and driving alongside him. But, the FIA have decided he did not overtake him—at points he may have been slightly ahead but both cars were accelerating and decelerating at different points.

The second protest—and this one will almost certainly be appealed and possibly go to court—is the FIA’s decisions regarding the safety car. Rule 48.12 is where  we’re mainly looking, the rule says that after “the message ‘LAPPED CARS MAY NOW OVERTAKE’ has been sent to all Competitors via the official messaging system, any cars that have been lapped by the leader will be required to pass the cars on the lead lap and the safety car.” The FIA and Red Bull are saying the rule says “any” not “all” lapped cars. This is true, but this has not been how the rule has been applied in the past, so why was it different this time around? It also 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.” Now, technically, the last lapped car didn’t pass the safety car—as they weren’t given the go-ahead to. But, if you’re counting the last of the five that were given the go-ahead as the last lapped car to pass the safety car, then this regulation states there should be another lap under the safety car, which there wasn’t.

There’s a lot of speculation going on in the F1 community (and paddock probably,) there’s a lot of disgruntled people feeling hard done by, and a lot of people blaming the FIA and race director. Now, that is a very difficult job, I certainly wouldn’t be wanting to be the person making these sort of high-pressure calls in such short spaces of time. However, it seems to me that the race director here was so keen for the race to not finish under a safety car that they pushed through with some decisions which firmly lie in the grey area of the regulations. Yes, technically the decisions are within the word of the law, but they are not how those laws have ever been interpreted before. These regulations aren’t necessarily set in stone, and the FIA defended their decision using article 15.3 which states “The Race Director shall have overriding authority…on the use of the safety car”. Which is fine, if this had been a regular occurrence, but it has not been. Every other time the safety car has been deployed it has followed that all lapped cars unlap themselves, the safety car remains out for an additional lap, and then we get racing again. So why was it different this time around? F1 is a sport, but it is a business too, and what sort of business wouldn’t want a last-lap dash for the ultimate prize in front of probably the highest viewing figures in recent years? Or perhaps I’m being too cynical!

What needs to happen is a look through of these regulations to ensure that these sort of important decisions aren’t just made on the fly, that the same rule is applied to the same circumstance every time—then we get fair racing where teams and drivers can know what will happen and plan for it.

The Teams

Mercedes- Hamilton 2nd, Bottas 6th: The team did win the constructors championship today, so despite all the fury and unhappiness about the drivers’ result, they can—and in time probably will be—happy about this. An eighth consecutive Constructors championship is unheard of and a massive achievement for the team. Hamilton drove a fantastic race today, fighting wheel to wheel with Max and then Checo, being consistent and gradually pulling out the lead. Later on, bravely defending in what was a lost battle. Bottas got a poor start but made places back to finish sixth in his final outing for the team.

Red Bull- Verstappen 1st, Perez DNF: Red Bull will be ecstatic with this result. It was clear they had the slower car today and needed a miracle for Max to win, and they got one. Max drove a good race, never giving up, and the team—pitting under the VSC and safety car—rolled the dice on what turned out to be a great strategy. Checo was ace today with Verstappen labeling him “a legend.” The team asked him to hold Hamilton up and hold him up he did! In one of the highlights of the race, Perez battled wheel to wheel with Hamilton showing his racing prowess and dedication to the team. Unfortunately, he had to retire the car towards the end of the race.

Ferrari- Sainz 3rd, Leclerc 10th: Good race for Ferrari, they both got a good start and moved up from their grid positions. They split the strategy—pitting Leclerc and not Sainz under the VSC, clever to cover both bases. Leclerc consequentially dropped back a bit and only made it back up to tenth. It looked like the Moagasque got stuck behind a train of cars—Alonso, Ocon, and Ricciardo—who struggled to pass one another on this track. A massive shout out to Carlos Sainz who took third place today to round off a fantastic year. Sainz continued his run of points finishes and in a solid performance inherited the final step on the podium after Perez retired. Sainz, therefore, finishes 5th in the drivers’ championship— the best of the rest behind the Red Bull and Mercedes drivers.

Mclaren- Norris 7th, Ricciardo 12th: Not a bad race for them, though perhaps they’ll be a little disappointed after Norris started in third. The Brit made a slightly slow start and ran a bit wide—losing a few positions. But he had a strong race after that and was in a solid fifth—keeping Bottas at bay for several laps—when he had to undertake an extra pit stop for a slow puncture. He dropped to tenth and climbed back to seventh. So, perhaps not as high as he could have been, but a great performance nonetheless. Ricciardo got stuck in the aforementioned train and couldn’t seem to get past the Alpines in front.

Alpine- Alonso 8th, Ocon 9th: Double points score for the Alpine team, not bad at all. Alonso seemed to have a much better pace on the harder tyres, which he started on. After pitting he didn’t seem to be able to find the same sort of pace and was passed by the Alpha Tauri’s, but still managed to bring home some points. Ocon had a quiet race, holding steady in the bottom region of the top ten throughout and bringing home the points too.

Alpha Tauri- Tsunoda 4th, Gasly 5th: Special mention for these guys today who had a cracking race. In almost certainly Tsunoda’s best outing he had on-track battles with Leclerc and Alonso—coming out on top on both occasions. Both he and Gasly managed to dive past Bottas on the final lap of the race too. I hope this is a sign of Tsunoda’s performance for next year. Gasly too had a really strong showing, moving up from a twelfth place start to finish fifth, the team nailing a long first stint and benefitting from stopping under the VSC.

Aston Martin- Vettel 11th, Stroll 13th: Vettel overtook teammate Stroll towards the beginning of the race—this was pretty much the only time we saw them on the television coverage, so I guess they had a very quiet one! The car didn’t have a very good pace around here and I think eleventh and thirteenth is probably a better result than they were expecting.

Williams- Russell DNF, Latifi DNF: Russell retired on lap 27 after losing drive, not the way the Brit would have wanted to finish his last race at Williams. Latifi will go down in F1 history hall of fame with Timo Glock in deciding championships at the last minute! For those new to F1, Hamilton famously passed a slow Glock—who’d gambled on staying out on dry tyres as rain lashed down in Brazil—on pretty much the last corner of the last race of the season to win the 2008 world championship. So, if you’re a pub quizzer, remember the name Latifi!

Alfa Romeo- Raikkonen DNF, Giovinazzi DNF: Not the best way for either driver to finish their F1 journey with Alfa Romeo. Giovinazzi had quite an uneventful race before retiring the car. Looking forward to seeing him at the wheel of a Formula E car next year, wishing him all the best in that championship. As for Kimi, well, it’s a sad day today seeing him leave the F1 paddock. A firm fan favorite with his upfront and unbridled honesty, normally delivered with as few words as possible. A brake issue saw him retire on his last race. After 349 race starts—the most of any F1 driver—The Finn finally waves goodbye to F1.

Haas- Schumacher 14th, Mazepin DNS: Schumacher was battling with Latifi—and holding his own—so again, a strong showing in the Haas. Mazepin tested positive for Covid19 before the race and was therefore unable to compete—hoping he has a fast recovery, get well soon Nikita.

Final Thoughts

Max Verstappen takes his first world championship. He drove a good race, Red Bull called an amazing strategy to win the race. He has had an incredible season and been fast throughout. Hamilton—I feel—deserved this race victory, and was somewhat robbed with the weird race director’s safety car decisions, but that certainly doesn’t mean Verstappen didn’t deserve to win the championship. In the Words of Fernando Alonso “I think both of them were outstanding this year, they both deserve to be champions.”

A massive congratulations to Red Bull and Max Verstappen, in what has been an epic year. They fought off a resurgent Mercedes for the drivers’ championship, the first non-Mercedes champion since 2014—the start of the hybrid era. Commiserations to Hamilton, who drove epically all year and was so close—literally about three miles and a strange decision—away from his eighth world title. So gladdened to see him congratulate Verstappen at the end of the race, and Anthony—his father—congratulating Jos and son Max. True class shown from the Hamiltons today.

  1. Verstappen (Fastest Lap)
  2. Hamilton
  3. Sainz
  4. Tsunoda
  5. Gasly
  6. Bottas
  7. Norris
  8. Alonso
  9. Ocon
  10. Ricciardo

Driver of the day: Perez
Honorable mentions: Hamilton, Verstappen, Sainz, Tsunoda, Gasly

Next Time

The dawn of a new F1 era is upon us! With major regulation changes coming in 2022. It’s likely Mercedes and Red Bull will still be at the top, but sometimes these rules changes bring about all sorts of weird and wonderful surprises. So, this will be a year to watch, as everyone gets to grips with the new rules and cars and we find out who made the most of the new regulations. I cannot wait!

The preliminary calendar sees the season kick-off on March 20th in Bahrain, then returning to Jeddah, and ending in Abu Dhabi on November twentieth. The season has twenty-three races planned, seeing traditionally favorites–like Spa and Monza, with returnees—like Melbourne and Montreal—both missing the last few years due to Covid. We also see a new track in Miami too. This is all, obviously, covid dependant.

Written by Jenny Alderton

Jenny is a freelance writer based in Wales with keen interest in Motorsports. An avid follower of Formula one for over twenty years she has recently branched out into watching other vehicles driving around in wiggly circles. Namely, Motogp, World Superbike championship, and British Superbike championship.

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