In a season full of drama and controversy, it seems almost fitting that the league title was decided in the final round of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton entered the points race level – a feat that only happened once in the sport’s 71 year history, when Emerson Fittipaldi and Clay Regazzoni entered the final level from 1974. It was the winner who takes all.
And after all the excitement and build-up, the race didn’t disappoint. There was controversy in the first round, with both title contenders having their fair share of luck. But in the end, 24-year-old Verstappen won the race and the league title.
Here’s how it all went.
Round 1: Hamilton got off to a much better start than Verstappen to lead at Turn 1, but the controversy started at Turn 6.
With so much at stake, it was inevitable to see the drama end. Hamilton leading his title rival was a huge moment, but the biggest event of the lap came at Turn 6.
Verstappen had moved closer and attempted to climb back inside Hamilton. His movement was late, but his braking was sufficiently timed to take the turn and stay on the track. Hamilton, however, was forced aside and cut the corner at the chicane before regaining the lead.
“He has to return that,” Verstappen said over the radio, but the stewards did not note the incident until two laps later.
Round 3: The controversy continued as stewards confirmed that no investigation was needed for the first round incident.
Stewards’ review decided Verstappen took the lead by forcing Hamilton, which Hamilton simply neutralized by cutting the corner.
Red Bull was furious and confused. They said it was just a tough race – Verstappen was ahead at the top and took the turn. All the while, Hamilton’s lead was slowly increasing.
Round 13: After struggling with his soft tires, Verstappen was forced into an early change.
He was out on the softs, but on lap 9 he was struggling with the degradation of the rear tires. He waited until lap 13 to get tough, coming out behind Lando Norris in sixth position.
Red Bull had to hope these compounds had a faster pace if they were to catch up with Hamilton.
Round 15: Mercedes brought Hamilton to the pit, switching from medium to hard tires.
Bringing in Hamilton was a logical decision for Mercedes to neutralize the race and cover for their rival. He joined Sergio Perez, but above all, still 4.8 seconds ahead of Verstappen.
Round 18: With Carlos Sainz as the only driver separating the title contenders, Hamilton posted another fastest lap.
Hamilton’s clean run allowed him to extend his gap with Verstappen to 8.0 seconds, while his rival struggled to overtake the Ferrari.
However, at turn 6, Verstappen took his chance and passed Sainz and sat behind his rival.
20th round: Hamilton had moved closer to Perez, but Red Bull fought for his teammate.
Knowing that Verstappen needed to catch up, Perez put up an excellent defense against the seven-time world champion. Hamilton passed him on Turn 5 and into Turn 6, before Perez regained the lead from Turn 7.
And when Hamilton finally passed Red Bull in the next lap, Verstappen was only 1.2 seconds away.
âCheco is a legend,â Verstappen said on team radio.
Round 22 to 34: Despite his teammate’s good work, Verstappen struggled to keep pace with Hamilton, with the Dutchman’s championship appearing to fall back slightly after each round.
Kimi Raikkonen’s F1 career ended sadly when he stopped on lap 26, but the resulting yellow flag didn’t change much as Hamilton continued to move away from his rival.
Round 37: A virtual safety car was deployed after Antonio Giovinazzi’s car stopped on the track at Turn 9 at high speed.
The VSC, which forces riders to drive at a slower speed to allow marshals to perform safety work, gave Verstappen the opportunity to pit and switch to another set of hard tires.
Hamilton stayed put, however, with Mercedes later explaining that the potential for losing his position on the track was too high for him to stop. In other words, if he had taken a dive, Verstappen would have stayed clear and taken the lead.
The decision left Hamilton with tires 22 laps longer than Verstappen’s for the remaining 20 laps of the race.
Round 38 to 52: Verstappen’s chance to win the league title seemed almost certain to be lost, with Hamilton maintaining his pace and the gap between them.
It just didn’t work for the Dutchman. Hamilton had the advantage over the pace and his tires were still holding up.
Round 53: But while all seemed lost for Verstappen, Nicholas Latifi collapsed!
The Williams driver hit the wall under the hotel after running wide at Turn 15, with a safety car needed to clear the damage.
It was the stroke of luck that Red Bull needed. The deployment of the safety car would reduce the gap between the title contenders to zero.
Round 54: With the safety car deployed, Hamilton was unable to pit, leaving him with no choice but to complete the remaining four laps on his old tires.
“It’s amazing, man,” Hamilton said on his team radio.
Verstappen, however, was able to be entered, switching to new, softer tires to close the Grand Prix.
At this point, Mercedes might have regretted not taking the opportunity to stop earlier in the race.
Round 56: This is where it got controversial – again.
The initial message from race management indicated that overtaken cars would not be allowed to exceed safety, presumably to speed up the restart.
There were five cars between Hamilton and Verstappen, and the Dutchman would have to overtake them all to get closer to Hamilton. Another blow to Red Bull – at least that’s what it seemed.
Round 57: Red Bull was furious. The safety car was still out and the overtaken cars were still between the title rivals.
Red Bull boss Horner asked race director Michael Masi: “Why don’t we rule out these cars? We only need one race lap.”
And under that pressure, Massi appeared to collapse, letting all five cars pass and bringing Verstappen back just behind his rival.
That made it a direct fight until the end. A one-round shootout. A battle between the two drivers who have marked the entire season.
Round 58: Verstappen entered Turn 5 and crossed the line first to secure the win and the championship after an incredible race. Hamilton tried to get Red Bull back on the outside of Turn 9, but on his old tires failed to hold him up.
Crossing the line, Verstappen looked incredulous, shouting into his radio, “Oh my God, oh my God.”
Sainz won the final podium, ahead of Yuki Tsunoda.
It was a race full of controversy on so many levels – a story that seems to reflect the entirety of this F1 season.
As Verstappen and Red Bull celebrated the remarkable final lap, Mercedes was furious. Boss Toto Wolff was yelling at Masi on the radio about what had happened.
“Michael! Michael! You have to go back one lap,” Wolff said, saying results should only count from the lap before the safety car arrives.
Masi replied, “Toto … Toto … it’s a car race.”
Mercedes then filed a protest against the result, which was later rejected by the FIA.
Verstappen, however, was delighted with his first league title.
âIt’s amazing. It’s crazy,â he said. “Finally a bit of luck for me. I also want to say a big thank you to Checo, he did well today.”
“To my team, I think they know they love them. I hope I can stay with them for 10 or 15 years for the rest of my life.”
It’s just amazing. I started running with my dad several years ago. We dreamed of becoming world champion and now we are.
– Max Verstappen (@ Max33Verstappen) 12 December 2021