Formula 1’s Big Finish: 2021 Title Comes Down to One Race
After crisscrossing the globe all year and running nearly two dozen races, the Formula 1 circus makes its last stop of 2021 this weekend in Abu Dhabi. It’s sure to be an exciting end to an incredible season, as title contenders Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen enter the weekend tied for first place in the championship standings. This season’s fight between Hamilton and Verstappen is surely one of the most exciting in the history of Formula 1 – and it all comes to a head on Sunday at the Yas Marina Circuit.
All season long, the newly resurgent Red Bull team has challenged formerly dominant Mercedes-Benz, pitting young gun Verstappen on the hunt for his first championship against seven-time world champion Hamilton, who looks to break yet another record with his eighth. They’ve clashed on track, in press conferences and meetings with race officials, and on social media.
How did we get here, all tied up after 21 races? Let’s look back: at the first race of the season in Bahrain, an illegal pass that cut a corner of the track meant that Verstappen had to give first place to Hamilton. Both drivers would each win two of the next five races, before Max took three wins in a row – France, and a double-header in Austria. The two met next in England, Hamilton’s home Grand Prix, where a first lap collision put Max in the wall and Lewis on the top step of the podium, winning the race. What had been a simmering competition through the first half of the calendar boiled over, erupting in on-track fireworks.
A couple of races later, this time at Italy’s historic Monza circuit, the two came together on track once again. In a low-speed chicane that both cars entered side-by-side, Verstappen went wide and drove over a speed bump, launching his car up and onto Hamilton’s Mercedes. Both drivers were shaken but physically unhurt. Their egos though, surely, did not escape without injury.
Since Italy, Hamilton and Verstappen have traded first and second place finishes (with the exception of Turkey, where a penalty for replacing his engine meant Lewis started from the back of the grid. He fought through the entire field to finish a heroic fifth place). Most recently – in Brazil, Quatar, and Saudi Arabia – Lewis has won three in a row. The see-saw of Formula 1 momentum appears to be tilting in his favor as we head into the season finale in Abu Dhabi.
Hamilton didn’t get this last win in Saudi Arabia easily though. In a race twice interrupted by red flags and slowed by a handful of yellows, there was an entire season’s worth of drama crammed into one race. Both drivers forced each other off the track on a couple of occasions, one eventually leading to a five second penalty for Verstappen. Later, after illegally gaining an advantage by cutting another corner, Verstappen was told to give the lead back to Hamilton by the officials. Due to what appeared to be unorganized communication by the race officials – telling the car ahead, Verstappen, to slow and give up his position before letting Hamilton know what was happening while he was driving flat-out – Lewis hit the back of Max’s car, which had slowed dramatically right in the middle of the track. Officials would later determine that even though the instructions could have been given more clearly, Verstappen’s aggressive braking led to the collision, and hit him with another penalty – this time adding 10 seconds to his time. Lewis eventually got past, and despite running wide and again forcing Verstappen off the track, took the win.
All this to say that the stage is set for outrageous action this weekend in Abu Dhabi – but it could play out in several different ways. As the championship stands now, even though both drivers are tied with regards to point totals, Max has one more victory under his belt in 2021. This means that if no points are scored by either him or Lewis this weekend, Verstappen comes out on top and takes home the big trophy. How would this happen? There’s a historic precedent: in both 1989 and 1990, McLaren teammates and all-time greats Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna were also neck and neck heading into the end of the season. Both years, at the Japanese Grand Prix, both drivers came together and collided on-track, one year instigated by Prost and the other by Senna. Prost would end up taking the championship in 1989, Senna in 1990. Max Verstappen has already said in interviews that he isn’t opposed to following this more than 30-year-old example and taking Lewis out if he absolutely needs to. His boss, Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner, insists that this won’t happen:
“Of course, we do care how we win the title. We want to win it on the track, not in the stewards’ room, not in a gravel trap. It’s been a tough fight all the way through the year, there has been some fantastic racing between these two drivers, and I hope it’s a fair and clean race in Abu Dhabi.”
If a collision does take place, the race officials can absolutely make decisive penalty decisions. In 1997’s season ending European Grand Prix, championship-leading Michael Schumacher drove his Ferrari into the side of second-in-points Jaques Villeneuve’s Williams to try to take Villeneuve out of the race and secure his second championship. He miscalculated, taking himself out instead, and having all of his championship points for the season stripped from him by the sport’s governing body.
There’s also the question of the roles to be played by current Mercedes and Red Bull teammates Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez. Will they cause collisions to close up gaps between their teammates elsewhere on track? Will they take one for their teams and block or try to collide with the championship contenders? That’s a strategy call probably being debated in team meetings right now.
Finally, there’s the overall unpredictability of a Formula 1 race. It’s impossible to know exactly what will happen when the green flag drops – there will be 18 other drivers racing for eight other teams who all want to win. Weather won’t play a significant role – they're racing in the desert, it certainly won’t rain – but races have been stopped or put under caution for all sorts of reasons in the past: animals on track, broken safety barriers, you just never know. The Abu Dhabi circuit has been revised for this year – a newly paved surface covers a slightly redesigned track – so the teams do not have the comprehensive data from years past that they’re used to using to set up the cars for success.
All we can hope for is a clean race. One that decides the 2021 World Champion cleanly and clearly. But as with almost everything else in Formula 1, it’s never that simple.
The green flag for the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix drops at 5:00 am Pacific time on Sunday, December 12 on ESPN.
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