Abu Dhabi, one year on: Why Formula 1 was the real loser

Thomas Maher
Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen in Abu Dhabi. Yas Marina December 2021

Title rivals Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen in Abu Dhabi. Yas Marina December 2021

Astonishingly, 12 months have passed since F1’s most controversial championship finale, as Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen jousted in Abu Dhabi.

Today, December 12, marks one year since the dramatic season finale of the 2021 F1 World Championship, and one year since my first cardiac event (I jest… I think?).

Championship showdowns are actually not as common as one might imagine – usually one driver or team steals enough of a march to seal the title up in advance of the final race of the year. Indeed, the 2021 season finale was the first such showdown in five years, and the first between two drivers from rival teams since 2012.

But even the example of 2012 – Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel vs. Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso – wasn’t as knife edge as that of the ’21 finale, given the German driver headed to Brazil with a 13-point lead over the Spaniard.

The unique circumstances of the ’21 title fight meant that last year’s Abu Dhabi race turned into one of those incredibly rare sporting scenarios that are so unlikely, it’s almost as if a scriptwriter was behind it.

2021 was a season of vitriol, passion, and, at times, outright hostility between the two title rivals Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, exacerbated by the mud-slinging matches between their team bosses Christian Horner and Toto Wolff – two bosses who appear diametrically opposed in their approach to team leadership, but are perhaps far more similar than either would ever dare to admit.

The opening rounds of the season had been closely fought between Red Bull and Mercedes, with Lewis Hamilton seemingly having the upper hand after the first four races – Verstappen having had no answer for Hamilton in Spain and Portugal.

But Monaco saw Verstappen and Red Bull strike back in emphatic fashion on a weekend where Hamilton struggled for pace, kickstarting the championship fight while Horner and Wolff started their off-track war by sniping at each other over the subject of flexing wings.

Verstappen’s title chances then took a blow, along with his right-rear tyre, in Azerbaijan, before the Dutch driver went on a run of three successive wins to establish himself as a bona fide threat to Mercedes’ long-standing dominance. That run came to a dramatic, and frightening, end in the tyre barriers at the apex of Copse corner at Silverstone as tensions between the two sides finally exploded in the first proper flashpoint of the season when Verstappen and Hamilton collided.

The battle waged on throughout the next 10 races or so, with various ebbs and flows in the title fight as different incidents and accidents interspersed strong waves of form for both Verstappen and Hamilton – including another weekend of uproar in Italy as the pair collided at the Rettifilo.

Going into the final races, with every weekend becoming an exhausting slugfest – particularly in Sao Paulo and Qatar – the momentum appeared to be on Hamilton’s side as the W12 seemed to be getting the upper hand on the RB16B.

An astonishing what-could-have-been pole lap from Verstappen in Saudi Arabia slipped through his grasp with an uncharacteristic error at the final corner in Q3 but, despite gaining the lead through a stroke of luck with an early red flag, the Dutchman couldn’t hold off Hamilton. While the title fight had already turned bitter, it was in Jeddah that the championship turned truly ugly – the alien and claustrophobic surroundings of the street circuit adding fuel to the tension as the gamesmanship between Verstappen and Hamilton resulted in yet another collision down the back straight.

It was a dream scenario for F1 and the FIA, with the two titans of the sport deadlocked on points heading into the final race. A complicated points permutation wasn’t necessary, even the most casual of observers could easily pick up the storyline going to Yas Marina – whoever was ahead at the chequered flag would clinch the 2021 title.

A stellar qualifying effort from Verstappen set up the chess board on Saturday, with a record 108 million viewers tuning in on the Sunday to see whether Hamilton could hold off his unproven challenger or whether the Dutch driver could end the British driver’s long-standing supremacy.

Of course, the race itself proved largely a damp squib until the very end. A lacklustre start from Verstappen handed Hamilton the lead and, aside from a questionable call from then-Race Director Michael Masi to allow Hamilton to keep that lead after an overtaking attempt from Verstappen on the opening lap, Mercedes looked to have Verstappen easily covered off.

That was until Sergio Perez came into the picture. Clearly amped up by being in the position to be of service to his team in a championship fight for the first time in his career, Perez nobly sacrificed his race by setting about delaying Hamilton after the Mercedes driver had pitted. Deploying all his battery power to stay ahead of Hamilton at whatever cost, the Mexican’s snail-life pace through the twisty third sector allowed Verstappen to latch back onto the back of his rival before Perez yielded to allow the battle to resume.

It was Perez’s actions that opened up Mercedes to a vulnerability – namely that of a late Safety Car. Due to Perez having wiped out Hamilton’s increasing lead, it meant Hamilton wouldn’t have the luxury of having a pitstop window over Verstappen should the unthinkable happen – meaning they were caught between a rock and a hard place. If a Safety Car was deployed late on, a pitstop for Hamilton would logically mean Red Bull would do the opposite. Should Hamilton pit, he’d lose track position with no guarantee of the race resuming. Should he not pit, Verstappen logically would, and give him a huge advantage if the race resumed.

Of course, the events of the final laps are now indelibly drawn into the F1 history books. A late Safety Car did happen, Verstappen did pit for fresh tyres, and the field patiently waited to see if the race would resume.

Mercedes, having been left exposed by the Safety Car, obviously didn’t want the race to resume – with Wolff applying pressure to Masi not to resume the race. Red Bull, sensing their opportunity, pleaded with Masi for ‘just one racing lap’. The Australian Race Director, who had the eyes of the world watching over him (and possibly the eyes of higher-ups not wanting such a climax undone by a Safety Car ending), then made the infamous call to allow unlapped cars to unlap themselves – although only clearing the ones that were in the way of the title fight.

Red Bull got the one lap they wanted, and Verstappen pounced on Hamilton into Turn 5 – pushing his title rival wide as Hamilton struggled to get his aging tyres switched on immediately. The battle waged on down the following two straights, as Verstappen fought off leg cramps into the mid-straight chicane as the adrenaline of the situation took hold.

Entering the decisive braking zone, it would have been oh-so-easy for Hamilton to edge over and scrape his front wing against Verstappen’s rear tyre – was it ever a thought in his brain as he wrested with the questionable decisions made by Masi in the minutes prior? Despite the emotional turmoil, Hamilton’s ever-sporting approach meant he conceded the place to his rival. And, with it, the title fight.

In the space of about 10 minutes, the entire complexion of the championship finale had changed immeasurably. On my part, shaky with nerves, I had to revise my race report quite extensively, as the enormity of what had happened on track sank in!

Of course, Hamilton composed himself admirably for the initial interviews as the Bulls celebrated with Verstappen, but little did any of us realise that the events of the final laps would occupy every waking moment for weeks and months afterward. Kicking off with the Mercedes appeals, before going onto the semi-boycott of the FIA Prize Giving Gala by Wolff and Hamilton, the appointment of the new FIA administration under Mohammed Ben Sulayem – it was a frantic period of time, made all the more intriguing by the radio silence from the Hamilton camp.

Having been an open book to the media throughout 2021, Masi also went to ground in the aftermath of his misjudgment. Perhaps himself put into the awkward position of trying to balance the interests of F1’s desire for spectacle with that of sporting integrity and the rulebook, Masi was doomed from the moment he ran a lap shy of being able to clear the lapped cars and restart the race legitimately – and it’s unlikely the true story behind his decision-making will ever become public.

The fact the title was decided in such controversial circumstances has sealed two separate fandoms into a perpetual state of toxic warfare, which was evident right up until the end of the ’22 season – borne out by the evident over-the-top anger shown towards Red Bull during the height of the budget cap/Sky Sports boycott hysteria.

It’s not clear how this can ever be solved, particularly given the ongoing snipe shots taken on occasion by both sides. Even a public clearing of the air between Mercedes & Red Bull, Horner & Wolff, and Hamilton & Verstappen, would likely have little effect. Even if all the parties were to put aside their differences and call for peace, the toxic side of each fanbase would simply argue about how the opposing side’s apology was disingenuous, while ‘their’ side was genuine and heartfelt.

It’s in this toxicity that the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix’s legacy truly rests. There were no winners from that dramatic, controversial, and hugely damaging weekend, a race that soured the taste of an otherwise delicious title fight.

While Red Bull and Verstappen did nothing wrong, his first title win will always be viewed as less than legitimate by those who won’t give him his due. Mercedes and Hamilton did everything right, but still lost due to matters outside of their control. The man controlling those matters, Michael Masi, fell victim to the Sword of Damocles that hung over him the instant he made the call to withdraw the Safety Car.

The FIA, too, briefly lost control of their image as an omnipotent but neutral and fair entity overseeing the sport, although Ben Sulayem has stabilised the ship since assuming the helm last December.

While highly entertaining, Abu Dhabi 2021 marked the point at which F1 collectively forgot that it is a sport, first and foremost. However unintentionally, the final laps made it clear that that integrity was briefly abandoned in favour of the spectacle. With that condemnation in mind, the alternative of a Safety Car ending would have been an incredibly unsatisfying way to end the season – but it would have been the fair, and correct, outcome regardless of whether Hamilton or Verstappen crossed the line first.

Astonishingly, that weekend marked the highest highs of entertainment and the lowest lows of sporting integrity. Will there ever be a championship finale like it again? Let’s hope not.