No matter where you were on Sunday evening, it is quite possible that you felt a bit of Formula 1 around you. Even the most disinterested of neutral viewers tuned in for what was dubbed as “the duel in the desert”: Hamilton versus Verstappen, Mercedes versus Red Bull in the final race of an enthralling F1 season – the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. By the end of it, the universal reaction can be summed up in words that resonate more with football fans: Formula 1, bloody hell.
After a 2020 season that was heavily affected by the pandemic, this was a campaign that saw 23 races, fans returning to the stands again – remember the atmosphere at Silverstone and Zandvoort? – and an introduction to the Sprint qualifying format. Let's recap on some of the biggest talking points of the 2021 F1 season and what comes next.
A rivalry that will grow
India has Roger Federer fans, Rafael Nadal fans. There are Messi fans, and Ronaldo supporters. And for a country that has not been on the F1 calendar for more than 8 years now, India certainly has Max Verstappen fans and supporters that regard Lewis Hamilton as one of the greatest F1 drivers of all time.
In that sense, the final lap shootout between Hamilton and Verstappen was nothing short of extraordinary. Purely in terms of entertainment, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix delivered with aplomb. Verstappen snatched the world championship away from Hamilton, who must now wait for that record-breaking 8th world title.
From the sporting side of things, however, there’s so much more to understand. With five laps to go out of a total 58, Hamilton was cruising towards the drivers’ championship. Then Williams driver Nicholas Latifi crashed. Out came the safety car, Verstappen pitted for a set of soft tyres, while Hamilton remained in the lead, but on a set of hard tyres that were more than 40 laps old.
What followed next has left viewers and pundits around the world perplexed. Race director Michael Masi’s decision to let some, and not all lapped cars through, infuriated Mercedes. There was similar confusion around the safety car regulations. The race restarted and Verstappen hunted down Hamilton on the last lap. He had just won his maiden world championship title. Red Bull were elated, while Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team boss, and his team were distraught. As BBC’s Andrew Benson wrote recently, the world championship had changed hands as a result of a questionable call from the race director.
In the aftermath, Mercedes lodged two protests, but they were both dismissed by the stewards, confirming the race result. The Guardian’s Giles Richards called it a “confusing end” for F1 fans, who deserved better.
This takes nothing away from Verstappen’s fantastic season though. The Dutchman secured 10 wins, 10 pole positions and was on the podium 18 times this season. He pushed Hamilton to the limit, who found a new side to his own driving. His performance at Interlagos, among other races this season, where he went from the back of the grid to beat Verstappen, was a testament to that. They crashed, sparred, went wheel to wheel on many occasions and finished 1-2 a remarkable 14 times in 2021. It was an unforgettable season of motor-racing. You can expect more fireworks from this duel next year.
Behind the Hamilton-Verstappen melee, Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz finished the race by earning a podium place. His 3rd place finish, combined with Charles Leclerc at P10, meant that Scuderia Ferrari finished an stellar third in this year’s constructor standings, comfortably ahead of their nearest rivals McLaren. That is a massive improvement for a team that was 6th last year in the team standings.
In Sainz and Leclerc, Ferrari have a stable driver combination. The Spaniard, in particular, has been really impressive. He finished his debut season for Ferrari with four podiums and also secured fifth place in the driver standings. The Tifosi have much to be excited about for next season.
Driver changes and farewells
When the dust finally settles, F1 fans will fondly remember Kimi Räikkönen, who participated in his final race on Sunday. The 42-year-old Finn had an early end to his race, after retiring the car due to a crash. He leaves as one of the most decorated drivers of his generation with a world championship title in 2007, 21 race wins, 103 podiums and 349 Grand Prix starts, the most by any driver, to his name.
Next year’s F1 grid will also have a host of exciting young drivers. George Russell, 23, bids goodbye to Williams and will join Hamilton as his teammate for the 2022 season. Meanwhile, Hamilton’s now former partner Valtteri Bottas will drive for Alfa Romeo next year, who have also replaced Italian Antonio Giovinazzi with Guanyu Zhou, 22, who is set to become China’s first-ever full-time F1 driver. Alex Albon, 25, formerly of Red Bull, will replace Russell at Williams.
The 2022 season is not far away
A change in regulations and a new car for the 2022 season promise a reset of sorts for F1. The new car, which was unveiled in July this year, is designed to promote better, closer racing. The cars next year will also feature new tyres from Pirell. According to F1.com, the new Pirelli compounds and constructions for these 18-inch wheels have been designed with the aim of reducing the amount of overheating in the tyres when they slide – an aspect that would help with closer racing.
Who will design the more efficient, faster car? Verstappen will now enter a season as the champion, not the contender. And as former F1 driver David Coulthard told the BBC earlier this week, Hamilton’s commitment to the sport is “unquestionable”: “He's already committed to another two years. He's a team person… and he'll be there next year trying to win his eighth world title.”
The answer to all these questions is just around 90 days away, with the new season due to begin in Bahrain on 20 March, 2022. Alpine’s Fernando Alonso, a former world champion who returned to F1 this season after a two-year break, summed it up rightly in a radio message to his team after taking the checkered flag on Sunday. “Thank you for the season. You were amazing. This was a warm up… Yes, it’s only the beginning. The best is just to come, next year. I promise.” Count us in, Fernando.