Max Verstappen is a Formula 1 champion at last, and though the circumstances of his triumph over Lewis Hamilton were controversial, his place in the pantheon of motorsport greats is secure.
This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.
Formula 1 in 2021 was never going to go quietly.
Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton had fought too hard, put too much on the line, for this most enthralling season to simply fade away. The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was always going to be something special.
The twist took 53 of 58 laps to reveal itself in the guise of Nicholas Latifi’s crashed Williams. The Canadian was unhurt, but the deployment of the safety car did serious damage to the lead Hamilton had worked hard to construct in a dominant race performance.
Verstappen, running second with nothing to lose, stopped for fresh tyres. Hamilton, with everything to lose, could only stay out.
Only five lapped cars buffered the leader from the fresh-tyred Verstappen, but in a bizarre decision by race control those five cars alone were allowed to unlap themselves, leaving Verstappen to fill Hamilton’s mirrors as the race resumed for one final lap.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff howled with rage over his radio connection to race director Michael Masi, but it was in vain. It took just five corners for Verstappen to exploit his new rubber, and he scythed into the lead with a daring late-braking move to break the points deadlock in his favour and claim his maiden world championship.
“It’s unbelievable,” Verstappen said. “It’s insane. I don’t know what to say.”
Mercedes was thinking the same. The team protested the result on the grounds that race control had broken its own rules on lapped cars and safety car restarts, and when the stewards rejected the argument, Mercedes lodged an intention to appeal directly to the governing body’s tribunal, potentially holding up the formalising of the result for weeks.
Race control would appear to have a case to answer, and it’s a pity this classic championship has ended under the cloud of such obscure acrimony, but the delayed coronation must not prevent recognition of Max Verstappen as a meritorious champion.
Verstappen played his hand to perfection through the race, and it’s his unerring capacity to get the most from his car and himself that has defined his season in its totality, his first in genuine championship contention. His surety when so many others would have cracked under pressure is remarkable.
The stats bear it out: he won 10 of the 22 races, claimed 10 poles and led more laps than the rest of the field combined.
Those numbers are all the more impressive for coming against the heft of Hamilton and the might of Mercedes, combined the dominant force of almost a decade.
Rather than feel the weight of expectation, the pressure of such formidable competition drove him to these heights. Thrilling for us is that Hamilton, so good at finding extra gears when his back finally hits the wall, reached new heights of his own, and the one-upmanship continued until the new rivals were far clear of the mere mortals of the midfield and even their own teammates.
“I think in general the quality has been very high, I think set by myself and Lewis of course,” he said. “We have been pushing each other to the limit every single time.
“Throughout the whole weekend — qualifying, race — it was so important to always try and be perfect, which is very high in Formula 1, to be perfect, because there is always a little tiny lock-up that can make the difference between P1 and P2.
“In the championship that we had, that was massive, so the level of focus required was very high.”
Verstappen’s title has been forged in the fire of one of Formula 1’s most intense campaigns. The result is the formation of a rivalry not simply between old master and young challenger but between two iconic world champions. Between equals.
Verstappen has taken his first step into the pantheon Hamilton first entered 13 years ago. How enhanced he is by the experience remains to be seen, but for certain is that there’s no turning back for Formula 1’s newest world champion.