Max Verstappen has beaten Lewis Hamilton to the 2021 world championship in the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but Mercedes is protesting the outcome after a last-lap safety car restart turned the race on its head.
This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.
Hamilton had the race and the title all but sewn up with five laps to go, having beaten pole-sitter Verstappen off the line and dominated the race thereafter, until Nicholas Latifi crashed his Williams car in the final sector, forcing race control to step in.
The safety car was called, and Verstappen was in a position to make a last-ditch tyre change, switching to the super-fast soft tyre, for the restart. Hamilton, whose gap to the Dutchman had been comfortable but not enough to cover him with a stop of his own, was left out on his weary hard tyres, making him extremely vulnerable to attack.
But there was doubt about whether the race would be restarted at all with so few laps remaining to recover the car. To give the race its best chance of resuming, race control communicated to teams that lapped cars, which were jumbled among the leaders, wouldn’t be allowed to unlap themselves, saving precious time.
But then the decision was recalled, and three lapped cars splitting Hamilton from Verstappen were allowed to pass the safety car to clear the way for a final do-or-die lap.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff was apoplectic, and he radioed race director Michael Masi furiously that the decision was unsporting. But the race was getting back underway on lap 58 of 58, and Hamilton was a sitting duck.
The Briton held the lead into the first turn, but his traction off the apex was poor with his badly used rubber. Verstappen hunted him down to Turn 5, where he launched into the apex from a long way back to seize the lead.
Hamilton tried to fight back through the chicane and down to the banked Turn 9, but he couldn’t get close enough, and when Verstappen swept through the banked bend and into the twisty final sector, his control of the race was secure, and he took the chequered flag to record a famous and contentious victory.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “Through the whole race I kept fighting, then the opportunity in the last lap — it’s incredible.
“I don’t know what to say. My guys in the team and of course Honda as well deserve it.
“To the team, I think they know I love them, and I hope we can do this for 10 15 years together. There’s no reason to change ever.”
Still incensed after the race, Mercedes lodged two protests with the stewards, one alleging the irregular release of lapped cars behind the safety car by race control and another for Verstappen appearing to nose ahead of Hamilton during the safety car, when overtaking is forbidden.
The stewards heard the protests after the race, with a decision to be decided at the time of writing.
Hamilton, who had controlled the race after snatching the lead at lights out and covering Verstappen easily at the pit stop, was devastated to have lost the race and his shot at a record-breaking eighth championship in the final lap.
“Firstly, a big congratulations to Max and to his team,” the despondent Hamilton said. “I think we did an amazing job this year. My team and everyone back at the factory … worked so hard this whole year. It’s been the most difficult of seasons. I’m so proud of them.
“We gave it everything. This last part of the season we gave it absolutely everything. We never gave up, and that’s the most important thing.”
Sergio Perez retired during the safety car after being on track for a well-deserved third featuring a thrilling battle with Hamilton on laps 20 and 21. The Mexican had been left out on his race-starting softs to slow the Briton’s progress and give Verstappen a shot at an unlikely overtake, and though it ultimately didn’t help the Dutchman, the pair going wheel to wheel through the first and second sectors was a highlight of the race.
Carlos Sainz stepped into his place to claim third on the podium to end his first year as a Ferrari driver on a high and ahead of teammate Charles Leclerc in the championship standings.
“I’ll definitely take it, especially after everything that unravelled in that race with the late safety car,” he said. “A podium to end a mighty first season for me, for Ferrari, P5 in the championship — I think I took it on today and definitely enjoyed it.”
AlphaTauri recorded an excellent fourth and fifth with Yuki Tsunoda and Pierre Gasly after passing Valtteri Bottas on the final lap, though it wasn’t enough to close down Alpine for fifth in the constructors standings.
Bottas ended his Mercedes career an ineffectual sixth ahead of McLaren’s Lando Norris. Alpine teammates Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon finished eighth and ninth, and Charles Leclerc completed the top 10 for Ferrari.