With what happened in Abu Dhabi still so fresh in the minds of many, it can be difficult to reflect objectively on the entire 2021 Formula 1 season because everything is overshadowed by those final few laps. But I’m hoping that more than a week on, with the Mercedes appeal settled and now both Lewis Hamilton and Toto Wolff stating that Max Verstappen is a deserving world champion, it’s a little safer to reflect on what happened.
It’s a bit of a cliché to roll out “the good, the bad and the ugly” when reviewing anything but it’s a good way of summarizing this. ‘The good’ was the conduct of the two title rivals on-track and off it at the final race, the quality of Hamilton’s final race, Verstappen’s desire not to give up, and the fair way they went racing on that controversial last lap. ‘The bad’ was that there was still a controversial first-lap incident. Although we managed to avoid flashpoints like we had in Brazil and Saudi Arabia it was a shame to start the decider with something like that as it invited the officials to make a divisive call. In the end that moment disappeared into nothing because of how the final laps played out. ‘The ugly’ was the way the race finished, the mishandling of the safety car, the contrived conclusion and the messy legal process it instigated – first through the stewards and then the four-day wait for news of whether Mercedes was going to take the issue to court. It was, in general, a really unsatisfying end to a mega season. And it spoiled it for both drivers – although obviously to different degrees.
Dealing with Hamilton first: this has been, I think, his best season in F1. Up against a proper rival in a very good car – sometimes faster, sometimes not – Hamilton had his toughest challenge at Mercedes. And he proved why he dominated the last few years because at times, Verstappen and Red Bull just couldn’t live with him. There were mistakes early on, uncharacteristic ones, but the second half of the year Hamilton was fantastic. And in the last few races when Mercedes had the edge, particularly in the races, Hamilton took full advantage.
‘If all that had happened in Abu Dhabi was a badly-timed safety car that wiped out Hamilton’s lead and gave Red Bull a chance to pit Verstappen without losing track position while Mercedes and Hamilton didn’t have the luxury, and then the race restarted with Verstappen in position to overtake and steal the win – so what? That’s bad luck, certainly. But it’s just something that can happen in racing.
Unfortunately, that isn’t what happened. Which is why F1 and the FIA find themselves in such an awkward position now. There is a specific instruction in the regulations on how to end a safety car period and it wasn’t followed, so that the FIA could hurry up with the restart. If the safety car period had ended when the rules demanded – the end of the following lap, which would have been the end of the grand prix – then Hamilton would have won.
It was no surprise the FIA stewards found a way to justify it afterwards but that doesn’t change the fact there was clear intervention that – as Hamilton put it – “manipulated” the outcome. I don’t believe it’s because the FIA wanted Hamilton to lose. I think it was a panicked, misjudged move – partly to avoid the race and season ending under a safety car but mainly because the idea of a one-lap shootout with the car behind having an advantage and a clear chance to attack was very appealing.
However, despite the level of abuse I received for stating Verstappen was still worthy of the title, I stand by the claim. It is possible to believe that and believe Hamilton was wrongly robbed of the title simultaneously.
The reason is simple: one race doesn’t detract from the quality of Verstappen’s season, especially when he has absolutely no responsibility for the final controversy. Points-wise, Verstappen was only able to take the title from Hamilton because of an excellent season that meant he was level with Hamilton pre-race. His camp has pointed out many times that had he not been unlucky at other points this year, he’d have had a lot more points to his name as well. There were also times in the closing weeks where Verstappen, I felt, crossed a line on-track. He is not perfect, except in the eyes of a few!
But he was outrageously good this year, super consistent and at times unbelievably quick. Likewise, Hamilton was phenomenal at his best and rose to the new challenge admirably. That’s what I loved about this season: 99% of the time it didn’t matter who was going to win because they both deserved it. Except for bad driving that decided the title in an unsporting way, I felt there was no way this championship was going to have a disappointing outcome. I was wrong. But I should stress, not because it ended with Verstappen as champion. The identity of the title winner never mattered – how they won it did. Somehow, we ended up in a situation where the season ended in a cloud neither driver caused. That’s such an unfitting way for this brilliant battle to have ended.