1293 – that’s the total number of laps of this past F1 season in all 22 races. Years where the title has been decided in the last race are rare, not to speak of the two top contenders being on equal points before the final race. A year where the title is decided in the last lap of the last race of the whole season is at least to me unheard of in the modern era, and yet that’s what happened last Sunday. Max Verstappen took his first world championship title, equally a first for a Dutch driver, and we all learnt who Michael Masi is, more on that later. You could safely say that anyone who still claims F1 is boring after this season has very high demands!
Even if it was at the risk of being at the end of the line in terms of commentaries on the season, I didn’t want to write this post last Sunday since given how things turned out, it wasn’t excluded that there could be an after-play during the week. Luckily though, it hasn’t really come to that. Mercedes did indeed protest against the un-lapping of only some cars in the before-last lap. The protest was however turned down, as was the subsequent appeal earlier this week, and whatever you think of the outcome, no one, and certainly not Lewis, would have liked the title to be decided anywhere else than on the race track. There is however reason to think that the king may have lost his crown not just for this year, even though any kind of bet on what will happen next year given the massive changes that I detailed earlier this year (see here) is difficult to make. Before going into all that, let’s however start with a short recap of the last part of the fabulous 2021 season.
There were six races remaining after my last update after the Turkish GP and it was pretty clear already then that this would go down to the wire. Bottas won in Turkey, the last race of the season where another driver than Max and Lewis finished first or second. After that Max would go on to win in the US, Mexico and Abu Dhabi, with Lewis winning three in a row in Brazil, Qatar and Saudi. This made it very clear that Mercedes was back in the game and that the car, which in some races earlier in the season hand’t looked that competitive anymore, was again as fast as earlier in the season. The only problem for Mercedes was that so was Red Bull. This was also reflected by Bottas and Perez, who both ended the season strongly with each two third places over the last six races. And if anyone needed any proof of Perez’s quality, that was to be found in his heroic driving to keep Lewis behind him during a few laps in Abu Dhabi – to me, perhaps the best driving of the season. This also meant that Valtteri ended his career with Mercedes with dignity before leaving for Alfa Romeo next year. Both Mercedes and Lewis have appreciated him for his loyalty and fairness, but it’s also true that he lacks the final percent needed to win races, and that both Lewis and Max have tons of.
Behind the two top teams it stayed a close call for third between McLaren and Ferrari, where in both cases the drivers are also close to each other. In the end Ferrari came out on top with Sainz ranking fifth in the drivers’ championship and Ferrari third in the constructors’. McLaren is not far behind though and Ricciardo certainly doesn’t regret his move from Renault since winning the Italian GP in September. Internally though he ranked second to Norris, as Leclerc did to Sainz at Ferrari. Alpine (ex Renault) is not far behind and forms so to say a third group with AlphaTauri, and Tsunoda on AlphaTauri was perhaps the driver that improved the most in the last part of the season. In the last part of the classification Aston Martin was clearly ahead of Williams and Haas, but not on par with any of the better ranked teams.
Things really heated up two weeks earlier in Jeddah when during the race Max and Lewis on several occasions were very close both on and off the track and Max at one point, when ordered to give back his position to Lewis, decided to brake heavily on the straight with Lewis right behind him. Lewis hit him, luckily only lightly, but it’s difficult to see what Max’s plan was here (and no, he didn’t just lift his foot as he claimed, the braking was measured at over 2G…). That and the rest of the race along with the fact that it put both of them equal in points was obviously enough to have everyone on their toes for the last race. For those in my generation, this almost reminded us of Senna and Prost back in the day and it was really hoping for the best but fearing the worst that we went into last week in Abu Dhabi.
Things couldn’t have looked better for Max before the race, starting from pole. They couldn’t have looked worse after the first straight as Lewis took the lead after what must have been the best start of the season. With Verstappen expected to take the start, not only because he was on P1 but also being on softer tires, he made a perfect dive into turn seven, pushing Lewis off the track, but Lewis managed to re-join in the lead. The stewards didn’t see it as requiring an investigation, and I agree. Max’s move was perfect and Lewis chose not to break in order not to lose position. Lewis then kept his distance and the race was rather quiet until a virtual safety car phase around 20 laps from the end. Max came in directly to change tires, but Lewis didn’t. He questioned this directly on the radio, saying it was kind of a risky decision. Oh how right he would be… After the VSC phase there was 20 laps to go with Max around 18 seconds behind, and it became clear pretty quickly that he wouldn’t catch Lewis. And then with five laps to go Latifi decided to create some excitement by putting his car in the barrier. The ensuing final safety car phase would change everything and make Michael Masi famous.
Masi is the F1 race director and thereby the guy who decides what happens in different situations during the race, such as for example the un-lapping of lapped cars during safety car phases. As any race director would be, Masi has sometimes been criticized during the season for his decisions, but no decision has been as controversial as the one last Sunday to let only the cars between Lewis and Max un-lap before the final lap, and then pulling the SC car in quicker than usual, such as to leave one lap of racing. With Max right behind Lewis on completely fresh tires (he used the fact that contrary to Lewis he wouldn’t lose any positions to change tires again during the SC phase), it was pretty clear how it would end.
The rules state that any cars should be allowed to un-lap, which Mercedes understands as all cars, and Red Bull as any, meaning not necessarily all. That’s a pretty good example of a not very clear rule. It’s however important to remember that un-lapping all cars, if done in time, wouldn’t have changed the outcome, and not un-lapping any would potentially not have done so either – even if there was only one lap remaining I would think that all drivers between Max and Lewis would more or less have thrown themselves off the track to let Max by. It’s however clear that Masi’s decision to pull the SC car quickly came out of a desire to see the season ending racing, and even though we all like and sympathize with that, it’s obviously not in the rules. Then again, had Mercedes changed tires on Lewis’ car during the VSC phase as they very well could have done, and as Lewis wanted to, he would have been in a far better position to fend off Max during the last lap. We’ll never know if it would have been enough and as Mercedes has also realized this week, it is what it is, and it’s in no way undeserved for Max.
Max’s full season and career so far couldn’t be more impressive. When he came to Toro Rosso in 2015 at the age of 17 he became the youngest driver in an F1 race, and he has since won 20 of them since joining Red Bull in 2016 where he’ll stay until at least 2023. Racing runs in his blood with his father Jos also being an old F1 driver who competed for Benetton back in the day. What all drivers mention as outstanding with Max is his aggressiveness and winning instinct which is second to none, including Lewis. It may be over the top sometimes but it always is with the top guys (perhaps with the exception of Lewis…). This is thus a well deserved title and I’d bet it’s not the last one. For Lewis the future risks getting harder in general with the immensely talented George Russell now taking Valtteri’s place. His instinct looks to be pretty comparable to Max’s, so Lewis may be up for the fight of his life to reclaim his title. We’ll know how it all turned out at the end of next year but for now, big congratulations to Max Verstappen, the F1 world champion in 2021!