Max Verstappen is the 2021 world champion after a chaotic and controversial single-lap dash with Lewis Hamilton to win the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The Dutchman had been down and out for much of the race. He’d taken a comfortable pole, but the Mercedes car was substantially more biased towards race pace, and the RB1B simply couldn’t keep up no matter the tyre compound.
It could have — and, in the opinion of some, should have — been race over at the first turn, where Hamilton snatched the lead and began building a big enough gap to comfortably cover Verstappen’s two stops to control the race.
But a lap-53 safety car turned the grand prix and the championship fight on its head.
Hamilton didn’t have a pit stop worth of advantage over Verstappen, allowing the Dutchman to switch onto the soft tyre. When the race got back underway for just a single lap, the Briton was a sitting duck on his badly worn hards. He was no match of the gripped-up RB16B, and by turn five the race was over, and Verstappen was on his way to championship victory.
The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was an intriguing affair, the new layout and closeness of the title contenders keeping the sport guessing right through to the first stint of the race.
The RB16B had looked competitive over long rungs during FP2, but Mercedes was otherwise the dominant force through the practice sessions, and Hamilton appeared quietly confident he had the tools to do the job in qualifying.
But Red Bull Racing had been honing its approach to Verstappen’s do-or-die weekend. A split approach to downforce loads on Friday between Verstappen and Perez convinced the team it wasn’t in with a shout of pole, and so Verstappen was handed a low-downforce set-up to keep him competitive on the straights for the race.
Mercedes was simultaneously working to make its car more competitive with full tanks to ensure Hamilton would be in contention at the finish.
What transpired were two cars that were relatively closely matched at the start of qualifying, and as the track cooled it moved further in Red Bull Racing’s favour, countering the RB16B’s understeer.
But Verstappen’s pole lap was something special beyond just the conditions suiting the car. His low-downforce package enlivened the car in a way that he likes, it allowing him to feel his way to the edge of grip in even the track’s slower corners, and it was his advantage in the slow and twisty final sector that was ultimately most impressive.
It was advantage Verstappen — at least until the first corner.
THE FIRST STINT: HAMILTON STARTS FASTEST
Verstappen was boxed into starting on the unfavoured soft tyre after a lock-up on the mediums in Q2 forced him off the damaged set. A one-stop would still be possible, but he would need to use the clean air of the lead to massage them to around lap 15.
But Hamilton aced his launch despite using the slower medium compound to seize the lead early, and after a brief skirmish at turn six — Hamilton was run out of room by a deep Verstappen lunge and chose to cut the corner to keep the lead; the stewards opted not to penalise him once he slowed to bring Verstappen back into contention — the Briton was able to settle into a rhythm.
The Mercedes’s advantage even on the slower tyre was to the tune of half a second a lap, and by lap 10 Verstappen was complaining his softs were showing their age. He was well out of undercut range, but on lap 13 he had no choice but to stop — it was earlier than the team wanted and subsequently dropped him to fourth behind Carlos Sainz.
Hamilton covered easily on the following tour and kept ahead of the Ferrari, which helped him to rapidly reopen the gap. By the time Verstappen got past the Spaniard he was nine seconds in arrears.
THE SECOND STINT: PEREZ THE ANIMAL
The race was rapidly getting away from Verstappen, so Red Bull Racing played its last card. It had left out Sergio Perez, third after the start, to inherit the lead, and the Mexican was instructed to slow Hamilton post stop to bring Verstappen back in touch.
Perez’s defence was masterful. Hamilton closed onto his gearbox on lap 20 and slipstreamed him down to turn six, but Perez got the better exit from turn seven and used DRS to work his way back past. He defended wheel to wheel through sector three, and at the first turn of lap 21 he defended ably to hold position.
Verstappen, meanwhile, was closing fast, and when Perez and Hamilton exited turn five and launched onto the first back straight the Dutchman had slashed his deficit to 1.2 seconds.
With Verstappen looming large in his mirrors, Hamilton made sure to make the move stick into turns six and seven, and though Perez then gave Verstappen a slipstream slingshot into turn nine, the Mercedes had the breathing room to re-establish his lead, and despite the life he’d taken out of his tyres, he was able to grow the gap again.
THE THIRD STINT: A FAILED GAMBLE
Red Bull Racing had one last roll of the dice: a second stop. Both Verstappen and Hamilton were talking about the likelihood of a second stop, and if Verstappen was able to close up on the back of Hamilton as the Briton managed his rubber to the finish, a fast out lap would ensure Mercedes couldn’t cover on the following lap, setting up a chase to the finish.
A virtual safety car on lap 36 sealed the deal for Verstappen, handing him a cheap pit stop and guaranteeing Hamilton’s non-response, but his pace on fresh rubber wasn’t enough to make much of a dent in Hamilton’s lead.
Crucial here in fact was Sergio Perez’s robust defence, the first of two occasions on which it proved decisive. Had Hamilton not lost approximately seven seconds to Verstappen, Mercedes may have felt the gap to Verstappen was safe enough to pit during the virtual safety car and cover with fresh hard tyres that may have been effective enough to aid him at the end of the race after the safety car.
THE FINAL STINT: THE RACE-WINNING MOVE
Hamilton had seen off several challenges to his lead, but the last and fatal blow came on lap 53, when Nicholas Latifi smashed his Williams exiting turn 14. The safety car was called immediately,
Hamilton — again, thanks to Perez’s defence despite the fact Verstappen had a second stop on his lap chart — didn’t have a safe enough gap to Verstappen to pit from the lead. It stood just under 12 seconds; a stop then would have put Verstappen into the lead.
Perez’s defence had ensured at two key moments Verstappen was just close enough to Hamilton to win him an advantage to deprive Hamilton of the chance to respond. The team then retired the Mexican’s car with reliability concerns, worried that his car might break down at the wrong moment and prolong the intervention, potentially forcing the race to end neutralised.
The confluence of Perez’s defence and the team’s decision to pit for softs combined into the race-winning move. When the grand prix restarted on the final lap Verstappen’s grip advantage on fresh softs relative to Hamilton’s 44-lap-old hards was embarrassingly large, and a long lunge into turn five got the job done.
PROTESTS AND APPEALS
It was a controversial ending for Mercedes, which saw its 57-lap-long control of the race dissipate on the final tour, and the team lodged two protests against the result.
One was against Verstappen for nosing ahead of Hamilton during the safety car. This was dismissed on the grounds that neither was at a consistent speed and the gamesmanship of running alongside, but not ahead of, a rival is fair play.
But the second is far more interesting: Mercedes is claiming race control ignored the FIA International Sporting Code in its handling of the safety car restart. Article 48.12 of the code stipulates, in summary, that race control directs any lapped cars to overtake the safety car and join the back of the field. The safety car can then be called in on the following lap.
Alternatively, race control can choose to leave lapped cars in place and resume the race immediately.
The wreckage was cleared on lap 57 of 58; allowing the lapped cars through then would mean the safety car wouldn’t come in until the end of lap 58 — the end of the grand prix. So race control told teams unlapped cars would remain in place in the interests of resuming the race.
However, shortly afterwards, on lap 57, an instruction was given to five cars — Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel, all of whom were lapped and between Hamilton and Verstappen — to overtake the safety car. The safety car was then called in at the end of that lap.
On the surface this would appear to be a breach of the code, and Mercedes thus protested the result.
The stewards responded that the F1 sporting regulations at article 15.3 allows the race director to control the use of the safety car — though this is a reference to the responsibilities between the race director and the clerk of the course — and that the call to bring in the safety car, as stipulated at article 48.13 of the code, anyway overrides other subarticles in that section. The protest was rejected.
Mercedes has notified the FIA of its intention to appeal, and its appeal must be lodged within 72 hours of the end of the race. Whether Mercedes proceeds to find some satisfaction or withdraws ‘for the good of the sport’, as is often cited at dead ends, will be interesting, but it seems deeply unlikely the result will be overturned.
FURTHER DOWN THE FIELD
Looking at the results of the rest of the field, as is par for the course in Abu Dhabi, overtaking was sparse. Carlos Sainz was only promoted to third after Perez’s retirement, and AlphaTauri teammates Yuki Tsunoda and Pierre Gasly jumped Valtteri Bottas for fourth and fifth with the benefit of soft tyres fitted during the safety car, an opportunity Bottas passed up.
Interestingly, Bottas afternoon was also made more difficult because Sainz ahead of him was slowed by some of the backmarkers who were not allowed to unlap themselves.
But Bottas’s day had been ordinary anyway. The Finn had slipped from sixth to eighth off the line but recovered to fourth by running a long 30-lap stint on his opening mediums. He missed the lap-36 virtual safety car by only a couple of laps; he could potentially have jumped directly onto the podium.
He battled with Leclerc on his out-lap, and after getting past, Ferrari decided to make a second stop at the virtual safety car. Used medium rubber was enough to gain him any positions though, and he picked up two places to end the race 10th only after Ricciardo stopped during the safety car and Perez retired from the race.