Johannesburg - “No Mikey!” No, no Mikey, that was so not right!” an exasperated Toto Wolff exclaimed over the radio to race director Michael Masi on the last lap of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday afternoon.
In that moment, the bae of Formula One’s disbelief was all of us in some manner – either through sheer disappointment or utter elation. The Mercedes team principal watched on in shock and horror as Lewis Hamilton was overtaken moments later by Max Verstappen, who was on fresher tyres and would go onto win the race and become the newly crowned world drivers’ champion.
While the Silver Arrows watched on in bewilderment, the radio interaction on the Red Bull pitwall was one of utter euphoria, and stupefied exuberance.
“Oh my Lord, Max!!! Oh, my God!!!”
“You are world champion!!!”
“Oh, my God! Ha! Ha! Ha!” “Yes!!!”
No-one would have dared to script the final moments of a brilliant and controversial 2021 season in such a manner, but as is the case in sport – fact can sometimes be stranger than fiction.
Hamilton dominated Abu Dhabi, and should have won the race except for the 53rd lap incident that saw Nicholas Latifi of Williams smash into the barrier, resulting in the safety car being deployed. In that moment and with only a handful of laps remaining, Verstappen pitted and put on the ultrafast red compound tyres. By that time,
Hamilton’s tyres had already been used for 38 laps and Mercedes opted for discretion instead of valour.
Race control did not cover themselves in glory, deciding first that no lapped cars would be allowed to overtake the safety car – granting a buffer between Hamilton and Verstappen; and then communicating that they would indeed allow those drivers to pass the safety car, leaving the Brit exposed. But that too is the nature of sport – it giveth and it taketh away.
Anthony Hamilton worked multiple jobs, emptied his savings and took out a second mortgage to help his son chase his dream of being an F1 driver.— ESPN F1 (@ESPNF1) December 13, 2021
He was there for Lewis after Sunday's race to remind him how far they've come ❤️ pic.twitter.com/JnWGpNO43t
The 24-year-old’s spectacular triumph created immediate ruptures in the fan-base, Hamilton’s supports rage quitting the event to spill their furious thoughts on social media, while the Dutchman’s fans came to his instant defence. With opinion so divided, a section of aggrieved viewers forswore never to watch the sport again, while others insisted that the victory would be good for F1 in the long run.
This year’s racing calendar will go down as one of the most disputed and acrimonious seasons in recent memory, and will have no doubt created long-lasting rifts and resentment for years to come. The rivalry between Hamilton and Verstappen, previously a footnote in seasons past, has now taken on its own characteristics, its own dimensions and legacy.
It will be a boon to the sport in seasons to come.
Hamilton, you suspect, will remain the protagonist – the man robbed of a record-breaking eight world title; while Verstappen will enter the next season as a divisive figure, the young maverick, arrogant and self-assured that snuffed out the title defence of his more decorated peer but adored for it nonetheless.
Their rivalry will surely be recalled as one of the great clashes between two masters of speed.
The outcome was immediately disputed by Mercedes, who logged two protests – the first alleged that Verstappen had illegally overtaken the safety car in the final moment of the race, the other applying to the manner in which the safety car rules were applied at the end of the GP.
Long after the fans had left the venue, the race stewards rejected both appeals, arguing that “although Article 48.12 may not have been applied fully”, the following article “overrides” it and “once the message ‘safety car in this lap’ has been displayed, it is mandatory to withdraw the safety car at the end of that lap”.
The Silver Arrows appealed that decision, too, and one can expect that the legal jostling between them, Red Bull and the FIA will continue for months to come.
Thank you everyone at @redbullracing and at @hondaracingf1 for an amazing car, you guys were amazing once again. @SChecoPerez, you were an animal today💪— Max Verstappen (@Max33Verstappen) December 12, 2021
To all my family and friends-thank you so much for all your support over the years. Couldn’t have done it without you!
Despite this, Hamilton remained gracious in his unexpected defeat, and showed his true mark as a champion.
Said the 36-year-old after the race: “Congratulations to Max and his team.
“We gave it everything this last part of the season and never gave up, that’s the most important thing.”
An elated Verstappen, meanwhile, could not contain his joy.
“It is unbelievable,” he said after the race. “The whole race I kept fighting and then that opportunity in the last lap. It is incredible. I am still having a cramp (in his leg). It is insane. These guys (the fans in the stands), my team and, of course, at home as well deserve it. I love them so much and I really, really enjoyed working with them since 2016 but this year has been incredible.
“Finally a bit of luck for me.
“I also want to say a big thank you to Checo (Sergio Pérez), he was driving his heart out as well. It was great teamwork and he is an amazing teammate.
“To my team, I think they know I love them, and I hope we can do this for 10, 15 years together. I want to stay with them for the rest of my life. I hope they let me. I am so happy.
“Christian (Horner) and Helmut (Marko) trusted me to be in the team. Our goal was to win this championship and now we have done that.”
Later, he would also acknowledge his title rival: “Lewis is an amazing driver and an amazing competitor who made it really, really hard for us and I think everyone loved to see it.
“Of course, the two teams had some tough times but I think that is all part of the sport and it is emotion. Everyone wants to win and it could have gone either way today. Next year we will come back and try it all over again.”
On face value, Verstappen deserved to win the world championship, as much as Hamilton. Both drivers served up a feast of racing this season, the title chase ebbing and flowing as the Dutchman won 10 races to Hamilton’s eight. It is true that his victory in Abu Dhabi might be a blemish on his title, but it will no doubt only act as further motivation for Verstappen in seasons to come to prove his credentials.
Red Bull aside, the other big winners of the season were Ferrari. The Scuderia finished third in the constructors’ title, although they remained winless this season. There much improved performance, redevelopment of their power-unit and focus on 2022, will make them possibly a dangerous prospect.
Next year will present new challenges for all the teams as there will be significant changes to the technical regulations. These regulations will reintroduce ground effect aerodynamics and bodywork to negate the dirty air and turbulence left in the wake of cars. It is hoped it will make overtaking easier and improve the wheel-to-wheel action.
Mercedes and Red Bull have poured every resource into winning this season, so they could find themselves on the backfoot at the start of the next racing calendar, scheduled to start in Bahrain in mid-March.
But, for now, Red Bull, Verstappen and Co can enjoy their brilliant victory and we can all look forward to a new season that will further define an exceptional rivalry.