A wild Formula One season came to a controversial close in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, and the world is still digesting everything that happened — both on the track and in race control at the Yas Marina Circuit.
As the dust from the drama settles, we take a look at some of the things we learned from the big finale in the UAE capital.
Controversy reigns, but tough to say Max did not deserve title
In a long and taxing season that spanned 22 Grand Prix weekends between March and December, Max Verstappen won 10 races, finished second in another eight and held off an impressive late-season comeback from seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton to clinch a maiden world title.
Hamilton topped the podium eight times this campaign, and arrived in Abu Dhabi having won the three previous races in Brazil, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Together, Verstappen and Hamilton provided one of the most gripping championship fights in the history of the sport, and entering the final weekend on equal points was a drama no screenwriter could have scripted.
As two-time world champion Fernando Alonso said on Sunday: “I think more than any other year, if you can split the trophy in two, this was the year to do it because both of them were outstanding.”
Ultimately, a safety car introduced late in the game and some debatable decision-making from Race Director Michael Masi helped Verstappen secure the title. Mercedes were left fuming as they saw their two protests dismissed in the wake of all the action.
“We’re going to need a miracle in these last 10 laps to turn it around. He needs some luck from the racing gods,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner had said during the race, almost manifesting some divine intervention.
The miracle happened and the 24-year-old Verstappen has become the fourth-youngest champion in F1 history.
At the start of the weekend, Alonso had given Verstappen a slight edge over Hamilton, saying that “Max is driving, in my opinion, one step ahead of all of us.”
McLaren’s Lando Norris echoed Alonso’s sentiments, adding: “I think the Mercedes has been the better car throughout the majority, and Max has been more unlucky and has made fewer mistakes as a driver. So I still have to congratulate him. He’s fought hard and he’s fought Lewis, who is a lot more experienced, won many world championships and so on.”
Many may disagree with Masi’s directives during the closing stages of the race, but it is impossible not to deem Verstappen a worthy champion.
Tough break for Hamilton, who remains gracious in defeat
It is difficult to predict how Hamilton will rebound from this. The Brit has stated more than once how tough this season has been, and to have the title snatched from his fingers on the very last lap of the final race of the year due to external factors — Nicholas Latifi’s crash, a safety car and Masi’s decisions — will definitely hurt.
Hamilton left the track on Sunday night without talking to the press and undoubtedly feels hard done by the race director’s calls.
“This is getting manipulated, man,” he said over the team radio as Verstappen passed him in a final one-lap shootout.
Despite it all, Hamilton was gracious on the podium and congratulated his rival on a job well done.
“Lewis has been a great sportsman in general,” Verstappen told Sky Sports. “He came up to me, congratulated me and it must have been very tough in that last lap. It also shows the respect we have for each other.”
Hamilton’s last words in his track interview with Jenson Button hinted at some question marks over his future.
“If I’m honest, we are still in the pandemic and I just really wish (people) to stay safe and have a good Christmas with their families, and we will see about next year,” he said signing off.
The @LewisHamilton Master Class on how to be the best in every way. A champion who wins most days & shows the world how to behave & stay composed when situations aren't kind to you. LH brings his A-game even when his soul is ripped out. Strength. Control of spirit. Role model
— Mario Andretti (@MarioAndretti) December 13, 2021
F1 needs to strike balance between sport and entertainment
As an entertainment product, Formula One captivated its audience as the Max vs. Lewis battle intensified over the course of the season.
Even their fellow drivers found themselves going back to their hotel rooms at the end of a Grand Prix weekend and pulling up the race highlights to see what happened between the championship contenders. It all came to a climax in Abu Dhabi and the drama held up until the very last second.
“Just when you think the season could not get any more dramatic, it does. I don’t even know if this is good because I think people’s TVs are just going to explode. I don’t think it can handle that much drama, I don’t think the watts on a TV can handle it,” McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo told reporters in Abu Dhabi on Sunday night.
BBC News presenter Ros Atkins summarized it best.
“Certainly there’s plenty of comfort for Formula One as it navigates this controversy; this was high-octane drama which demanded the world’s attention in a way many sports could only dream of,” he said.
Indeed, having an entire sporting audience that invested in a single race is quite an achievement. But as Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz mentioned in Abu Dhabi ahead of the action, F1 — and the drivers — has a duty to prove to its followers that it is not just a show, but also a sport.
There appears to be inconsistency in the decision-making from the stewards and many are wondering if some of the calls are being made simply for the sake of producing must-see television.
At what point does it become too much, though? There is a reason “Drive to Survive” is a show on Netflix and Formula One is a sport aired live on television screens worldwide. There is, and has to be, a distinction.
If the rules are not consistently applied, and not generally understood and agreed on by all stakeholders involved, the whole thing risks becoming a gimmick.
Judgment calls exist in any sport, but fans must trust that these decisions are being made for the right reasons.
It is great to see Formula One thrive in the fast-paced world of electronic sports and bite-sized digital content in which we live. But the sport must find a balance between entertainment and competition.
The extraordinary and extraordinarily complicated story of how Max Verstappen became Formula 1 World Champion in the final race of the season. In 4 mins. Produced by Tom Brada. https://t.co/6mnCoWXa4V pic.twitter.com/AR8uPSm8f6
— Ros Atkins (@BBCRosAtkins) December 13, 2021
Checo the ultimate teammate
“Checo is a legend,” yelled Verstappen over the team radio during the race. “Absolute animal,” came the response from the Red Bull team engineer.
Both were apt descriptions for Sergio “Checo” Perez, who helped his teammate Verstappen in both qualifying (his tow was flawless) and the race (he held up Hamilton to narrow Verstappen’s gap to his rival), and then fulfilled his press duties while wearing a T-shirt celebrating the Dutchman’s championship triumph.
In Formula One, we are constantly reminded that teammates are each others’ biggest competitors, since they are the only two on the grid that have the same car, and can be measured against one another.
That dynamic can often lead to bitter rivalries within a team and environments turning toxic. That clearly is not the case with Red Bull Racing.
When asked if Verstappen’s win meant that much to him that he was wearing the shirt to honor it, Perez replied: “Honestly it does, because Max has been a great teammate since day one to me and the team. The team has been fantastic to me and I was in the position to support my teammate. I’m extremely happy for everyone.”
Perez added: “The legend is him now, he’s a world champion.”
Verstappen paid tribute to his teammate in a track interview and champion’s press conference.
“I also want to say a big thank you to Checo, I mean he was driving his heart out as well today. It was great teamwork and he is an amazing teammate,” he said.
“I think without Checo I wouldn’t be sitting here right now,” Verstappen later added.
“Checo is just an amazing human being, not only just to work within F1 but just a super-nice person, real family man as well. I have had a lot of good times with him, and you could see he really means it and he means well and it’s very rare to have a teammate like that.”
Find you a teammate who’ll drive for you the way Checo did today then wear a t-shirt to celebrate your win! pic.twitter.com/dpfervwQUG
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) December 12, 2021
Sainz, Tsunoda end year on a high
Alonso laughed when asked to say a few words about Sainz’s incredible P3 finish on Sunday, which saw him secure fifth place in the championship in his first season with Ferrari.
“Yes, but no one will remember,” joked Alonso, knowing all the attention was on Verstappen and Hamilton, and the controversial end to the race.
Sainz has a lot to be proud of, though, and will certainly remember how his 2021 campaign ended with his fourth podium of the season and the highest championship finish of his Formula One career.
“It’s truly a great way to end a very positive first year in Ferrari for me,” said Sainz.
“A very challenging year, but in the end, it turned out to be a very strong one. A year that I’m quite proud of and, yeah, to finish it with a podium that probably no one will remember — I’ll add it to the collection — because of whatever was happening in front. I enjoyed it a lot and put together everything that I have learned through this first year to put probably my strongest race in Ferrari together.”
AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda concluded his rookie year with a season-best fourth-place showing in Abu Dhabi — another result that may have been overlooked in all the mayhem.
Asked if he considered himself the rookie of the year, the 21-year-old Japanese joked and said: “Maybe yes, after today.”
Nice way to end up this season pic.twitter.com/V7qJRL1x2F
— 角田裕毅/Yuki Tsunoda (@yukitsunoda07) December 13, 2021