Race: Verstappen takes title in dramatic Abu Dhabi finale

Jon Wilde
Max Verstappen's Red Bull in front of fireworks after winning the Abu Dhabi GP. Yas Marina December 2021.

Max Verstappen's Red Bull in front of the fireworks after winning the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Yas Marina December 2021.

Max Verstappen clinched his first World Championship title after an incredible finale to one of the most remarkable seasons in Formula 1 history.

With Lewis Hamilton looking to have a record-breaking eighth Drivers’ crown in the bag, Verstappen snatched it from his hands in yet another hugely contentious moment at the end of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

A late Safety Car period, during which Red Bull stopped their man for fresh tyres, gave the Dutchman the chance to attack and pass Hamilton, who had been in control of the race throughout, on the very last lap.

With Toto Wolff going nuts over the team radio to race director Michael Masi, it was clear that would not be the end of the matter. And so it proved as Mercedes lodged two protests, the final result only being declared more than four hours after the end of the race when the FIA dismissed those pleas.

An unforgettable Formula 1 season, comprising a record 22 races, had come down to a mouth-watering desert climax, with the two protagonists remarkably level on 369.5 points apiece, Verstappen going into Abu Dhabi with the advantage of one more victory during the campaign than his rival.

Hamilton, who trailed by 33 points in July, had drawn level by winning the three previous grands prix, but it was Verstappen that had the edge in qualifying when he secured pole position in scintillating style by the impressive margin of 0.371sec.

The tension was palpable as the 19 cars – Nikita Mazepin having returned a positive COVID-19 test – lined up amid a setting sun with Hamilton alongside his rival on the front row, the reigning champion on medium tyres whereas Verstappen had the softs with which he had set his fastest lap in Q2.

That was expected to give the Red Bull an advantage off the line, but that was not how it played out as Hamilton led into the first corner with Verstappen ahead of team-mate Perez in third.

Then came the first big moment of controversy as Verstappen went for a move down the inside of the Briton at Turn 6 and almost made contact with the Mercedes, Hamilton running off track and returning with a bigger advantage. Verstappen, via team radio, wanted the lead conceded but the stewards decided no investigation was necessary.

Red Bull sporting director Jonathan Wheatley contacted race director Michael Masi to argue his team’s case but was told Hamilton had actually given up the ground he had gained – news that went down like a lead balloon with Verstappen.

The first three had pulled well clear of Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz in fourth, with Hamilton maintaining a lead of around two seconds and Verstappen twice reporting his rear tyres were going off. Consequently, the gap began to increase as Hamilton turned in a succession of fastest laps, leaving Red Bull with a potential headache over strategy.

Verstappen stopped for hard tyres on lap 14 and came out behind Lando Norris, who had dropped from P3 at the start to fifth and was reporting gear issues, the Dutchman passing the McLaren as Hamilton also ‘boxed’ and re-emerged 11 seconds behind new leader Perez. The gap between Hamilton and Verstappen, who was behind Sainz, was over five seconds.

A lap 18 pass on Sainz put Verstappen back up to third while Hamilton closed in rapidly on Perez, who was persevering on his soft tyres. “We’re looking to hold up Lewis”, the Mexican was told by his race engineer, Hugh Bird.

A terrific duel ensued with Hamilton calling out “some dangerous driving” from Perez before finally getting by, the Red Bull driver’s efforts allowing Verstappen to close up. “A legend” was the Dutchman’s description of his colleague, while race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase called Perez “an absolute animal”.

“Hard racing” was Masi’s take in conversation with Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, who was unhappy with Perez’s attempts to keep Hamilton behind.

Kimi Raikkonen, in his 349th and final F1 race start, made the final scheduled stop of his career for Alfa Romeo, but it was not a race the 2007 World Champion looked like remembering too fondly as he was running with only Mick Schumacher in the Haas behind him.

That was compounded when the 42-year-old suffered a braking problem into Turn 6 and brushed the barrier. He got the car back to the pits but the issue was terminal and Raikkonen’s race – and career – was over.

An unfortunate end for the Iceman and he was quickly joined on the sidelines by George Russell, who lost drive in the Williams and had to retire from his last race for the team before joining Mercedes for 2022.

Up front, the lead had increased to four seconds at the halfway stage and barring mishaps, the only way for Verstappen to salvage his World Championship dream was for Red Bull to roll the strategy dice. He simply had no answer to Hamilton’s pace on those hard tyres.

As darkness fell on the re-profiled Yas Marina circuit, Valtteri Bottas, having a disappointing final weekend for Mercedes, diced with Charles Leclerc over eighth position and eventually got past the Ferrari, while Antonio Giovinazzi pulled over to the side and retired from his Alfa Romeo swansong.

That sparked a Virtual Safety Car period and Mercedes spurned the chance to pit Hamilton, but Red Bull took the opportunity and gave Verstappen a new set of hard tyres.

Wolff was on to Masi again, pleading for no Safety Car as Giovinazzi’s Alfa was wheeled away, and Hamilton expressed fears that Verstappen’s pit-stop may have given him an advantage with the deficit reduced. “He will need eighth tenths a lap on us to catch,” Hamilton was told by his race engineer, Pete Bonnington.

Mercedes had clearly decided on a one-stop strategy for Hamilton unless a Safety Car period pitched in another curveball, and so the final act of this incredible scene was set – it came down to whether Verstappen, on much fresher tyres, had the pace to chase down and pass his prey.

It soon became nearer, and then more than, a second per lap Verstappen needed to gain and it simply was not happening. He was stuck at 13 seconds behind, then 11, for lap after lap but Hamilton still sounded edgy over the team radio, querying how much of the race remained – his dash was saying three laps fewer than there was.


Just as Verstappen thought all hope had gone came the big late twist in the tale. Nicholas Latifi crashed his Williams following a skirmish with Schumacher and brought out the Safety Car, prompting Red Bull to pit Verstappen for soft tyres in the event of time allowing a late dash to the chequered flag.

Perez came into the pits to retire and Race Control allowed one racing lap to take place after calling in the Safety Car when the track had been cleared. The lapped cars were moved out of the way and Verstappen, on new soft tyres to Hamilton’s old set of hards, got past the Briton and took the chequered flag to Red Bull’s absolute delight – and Mercedes’ fury.

Limited consolation for Mercedes was retaining their Constructors’ Championship as Sainz took the final podium position.

Race classification

1 Max Verstappen Red Bull
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 2.256s
3 Carlos Sainz Ferrari 5.173s
4 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri 5.692s
5 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri 6.531s
6 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 7.463s
7 Lando Norris McLaren 59.200s
8 Fernando Alonso Alpine 61.708s
9 Esteban Ocon Alpine 64.026s
10 Charles Leclerc Ferrari 66.057s
11 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin 67.527s
12 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren 1 LAP
13 Lance Stroll Aston Martin 1 LAP
14 Mick Schumacher Haas 1 LAP

Did not finish

Sergio Perez Red Bull
Nicholas Latifi Williams crash
Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo gearbox
George Russell Williams
Kimi Raikkonen Alfa Romeo brakes