Oh. My. God. Max Verstappen is the 2021 Formula 1 world champion after beating Lewis Hamilton to the checkered flag on the last lap of the season finale in Abu Dhabi, capping arguably the most titanic title battle in the sport’s history in the most dramatic way imaginable.
At 24 years old, Verstappen becomes the Netherlands’ first drivers’ title winner and the fourth youngest in history, behind Fernando Alonso, Hamilton himself, and Red Bull predecessor Sebastian Vettel.
How on earth did he do it? With F1’s championship challengers level on points heading into the final race for only the second time in 71 years, Max stormed qualifying on Saturday by taking pole by almost four-tenths. But despite starting the grand prix on the harder ‘medium’ tire, it was Hamilton who surged ahead into the first turn.
There was controversy a few corners later as Verstappen made a late lunge for the lead at the end of the back straight, but in doing so he forced Hamilton off track—unfairly in the eyes of the stewards. Hamilton took to the run-off area, kept the lead, and began to turn the screw at the front.
Both Mercedes and Red Bull pitted their championship contenders early for what in theory should have been their only stop of the race, allowing the latter to run Sergio Perez long and put the Mexican in Hamilton’s way. Perez then performed his wingman duties brilliantly to hold Lewis up, costing him seven whole seconds relative to Max and keeping the duel alive.
Still, the Mercedes seemed to have a clear pace advantage throughout and Hamilton built up the gap again, giving him a comfortable margin over Verstappen. It looked like things would fizzle out, but when the virtual safety car was deployed to retrieve the stricken Alfa Romeo of Antonio Giovinazzi, Red Bull pitted Verstappen for fresh tires and Mercedes instructed Hamilton to stay out. 18 seconds the gap, 20 laps remained. Game on.
Hamilton—as he so often does—judged his older tires beautifully in the closing stages of the race, ensuring the charging Dutchman couldn’t even get within 10sec of him despite the tire offset. A grim Christian Horner spoke to Sky Sports from the pit wall with 10 laps to go: “We need a miracle.”
He got it. With just a few laps left, Nicholas Latifi put his Williams in the barriers and triggered a safety car, and with nothing to lose Verstappen, pitted for a third time for new soft tires as Hamilton stayed out.
And then came the decision we’ll likely be talking about for years: Race director Michael Masi initially ruled the lapped cars couldn’t overtake the safety car, giving Hamilton the buffer he needed to nurse his old rubber home. But out of nowhere, the five cars—and only those five cars—between the two rivals were waved through, setting us up for a grandstand finish. One single racing lap to decide one of the closest title fights in F1 history. It was meant to be.
Hamilton pinned it at the restart and defended for his life, but on fresher rubber, Verstappen made the decisive move at turn five and held on to snatch away what would’ve been Lewis’s record-breaking eighth title in a finish surely only rivaled by the Brit’s own maiden crown in Brazil in 2008.
"It is unbelievable,” said Verstappen. “The whole race I kept fighting, and then that opportunity in the last lap. It is incredible. It is insane. These guys [in the grandstands], my team, and of course, at home as well, they deserve it. I love them so much and I really, really enjoy working with them since 2016, but this year has been incredible. Finally a bit of luck for me.
“I also want to say a big thank you to Checo [Perez], he was driving his heart out as well. It was great teamwork and he is an amazing teammate. To my team, I think they know I love them, and I hope we can do this for 10, 15 years together. I want to stay with them for the rest of my life. I hope they let me. I am so happy. Christian [Horner] and Helmut [Marko] trusted me to be in the team. Our goal was to win this championship and now we have done that.”
Should Hamilton have conceded the lead at the start? Did Mercedes make a grave error in not pitting their man during the virtual safety car? Was the race director allowed to clear some but not all of the lapped cars within the limits of the rulebook? The stewards have dismissed Mercedes’ protests after the race, but the team has also voiced its intention to appeal the decision. The saga could run for quite some time…
What a climax. What a season. PS: Carlos Sainz grabbed the final podium place and Mercedes still won the constructors’ crown. Minor details, though, eh?
NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.
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