Verstappen Confirmed Abu Dhabi Winner, Wins First World Championship
“The first Dutch world champion won it after a thrilling season-long drama that went down to the last lap of the final race, pipping the seven time world champion, Lewis Hamilton.”
Not since the heady days of Michael Schumacher has Formula 1 seen this much action or attention. On a day when tensions ran high and nerves jangled right through the weekend in the build up a week after the dramatic, drastic Saudi Arabian Grand Prix debut, Max Verstappen kept his eyes firmly on the prize, piping the seven time champion, Lewis Hamilton, for his first ever world driver championship title.
In what has been one of the most enthralling seasons in Formula 1 that saw both drivers going into the race on equal points, it had to take a heart-stopping final lap under the dazzling and dizzying night lights of the Abu Dhabi circuit for Max Verstappen to make good on the promise he made at the start of the season when he gave the reigning champion a run for his money and the fans something to cheer about and get behind after many a season that went rather monotonously the way of the dominant Brit.
21 races this season and 57 laps of the last and final race in Abu Dhabi could not decide the winner of the season. Even then Mercedes have thrown every book at the verdict, challenging it with race control and now contemplating taking legal recourse. At the heart of their angst was not only losing the world drivers championship – they managed to edge out Red Bull for the world constructors trophy, but also, with race control and decisions made that did not go in their favour or the manner in which the race was closed out.
That though has not stopped Formula 1 from dismissing the charges after the appropriate hearing and declaring Verstappen as the first ever Dutch driver to win his first ever world driver championship title, a dream he has nourished as the summit of his racing from a tender age in the shadow of his father – an F1 driver of merit himself, a dream that saw both, support and sacrifice from his family, which he candidly acknowledged later.
If the dying moments of the final lap will go down as one of the most controversial, exciting and enthralling ever, it was no different from the first lap when Verstappen, after getting off to the poor start despite being on pole, made a deep dive in his attempt to overtake Hamilton but stayed steady on the open racing line that was there for the taking, throwing the Brit off his game.
But while Hamilton ran wide and should have yielded the place he retained in the lead in the process as per usual protocol or asked to do so by race control, his race engineer, Pete Bonnington, determined that Hamilton had yielded enough positional advantage and therefore, could keep the lead. While Max demanded the position back, the race control decided not to get involved and investigate, leaving racing fans both aghast and divided.
With Hamilton stretching his lead, and Verstappen’s soft tyres beginning to suffer wear and tear, Red Bull decided to give Max an early pit stop in what was expected to be a one pit stop race, and not surprisingly Mercedes copycatted the move not for the first time this season. But this was the only move they made and in the end, might have to count themselves not only unlucky or at the end unfair end of the stick but also, at a self-inflicted strategic disadvantage for not trying something while Hamilton, in essence, became a sitting duck for Mercedes’ boxed strategies as Red Bull gambled all the way and were rewarded for their bravery and boldness in the end.
If the slipstream and DRS move that Sergio “Checo” Perez gave his team mate at Red Bull at the start of Q3 in the qualifying session on Saturday was not noteworthy enough, this would not be the only heroic cameo he would play in Abu Dhabi to give Max every advantage possible going up against the multiple time champion.
In what was a mini race within the race, Checo, on weary tyres, remarkably held off an aggressive Hamilton in a tussle that will go down in history as one of the most incredible laps on the race tracks. While shunting the champion behind him in a great defensive line and aggressive determination which is always “dangerous driving” when it is not Hamilton himself doing it, Perez was remarkable in shaving off more than 6 seconds off the lead that Hamilton held over Verstappen after the pit stops.
By the time Checo was forced to yield to the superior car and driver, Verstappen was in the rear view mirrors of Hamilton’s car.
“He’s a legend!” Verstappen appreciated his team mate’s efforts right away to which the engineer acknowledged, “He’s an animal!” It was indeed a thrilling result even for Checo who could not complete the race but who finished similarly last season, finding himself on pole but without a seat for the 2021 season. Red Bull had pulled off two brilliant strategies as it turned out: signing Verstappen at the tender age of 17 and then snapping up Checo at the eleventh hour in 2020.
The suggestion of a shared trophy as put forth by Fernando Alonso seems not only inane but also, inaccurate and unfair. This is sport and competition and there can only be a winner. Besides, Max Verstappen’s numbers alone should settle the case. Leading in 652 laps compared to Lewis’ 303, Max has won two more races this season with ten to his name and also, has the history of walking away from eighteen podiums finishing either first or second. The scorecard, even level at the time of the start in Abu Dhabi, would have ended up in Max's favour in the rare event that both the drivers somehow ended up on equal points.
With Hamilton continuing to use the pace of a much faster car – which underwent a fifth engine change in Brazil that turned the season on its head, Red Bull picked their next move off a virtual safety car within the fortieth lap to give Max a fresh set of tyres to race on. But that was not near enough rattling for the Mercedes team as it was nerve racking for Hamilton who voiced his doubts over the pit radio asking if the team were taking a risk by keeping him out.
That decision might have come back to haunt them because as Verstappen found himself once more digging his heels despite that second pit stop, Hamilton found himself with a nervous 11 second lead that he did seem quite sure about. The constant pit conversation back and forth between himself and the race engineer spoke of that discomfort. His fears were soon confirmed when the unthinkable happened.
The mathematics seemed to suggest that Max would have to drive in the race for his life if he were to catch up with Hamilton even with fresher tyres. Just after Christian Horner, the Red Bull principal, was heard praying to the racing gods to deliver a miracle, a livid Toto Wolff, his counterpart at the bullish Mercedes team, was trying to influence Michael Masi, “No safety car. It will interfere with the race.” This was after Nicholas Latifi crashed his car into the barriers with only five laps remaining in the race.
Since when was the safety car meant to interfere with the race when it was only pulled out to ensure that the debris on track did not create more collisions and commotion?
It drew ire and humour from fans worldwide. And it is this kind of exposure from making previously private conversations between the teams and the FIA that have added to the furore and the fun of the grand prix.
Meanwhile Red Bull had their fresh set of soft tyres on for Max while Hamilton missed the window to come into the pits as the race engineer admittedly felt that they might have lost track position had they done so. All through the season, Hamilton has had to deal with not only a pugnacious young rival who will not take no for an answer but also, with having a fumbling strategy in his own pit garage that has made him question their decisions from time to time.
Appropriately it seems his comments – one of the last before he maintained radio silence – that the race was manipulated – was not aired. But Hamilton thought it was important for his fans to know nonetheless. It brings back memories of Silverstone where Hamilton cried foul after the duo clashed and sent Max to the hospital. The celebrations were over the top.
Mercedes tried their way here on the first lap when Hamilton cut the chicane, albeit taken aback by Max who saw an opportunity any racing fan would have noticed and took it with an aggressive move which no one would have faulted had it been Michael Schumacher or even Hamilton when he picked similar moves. Notwithstanding Verstappen’s age or the lack of previous world championships, it seemed that one driver deserved it more and not just on the night.
Max Verstappen is F1’s new world champion, his car branded no.1 next year as the young Dutch-Belgian driver confirmed with a pleasing smile of a man who has already achieved his dreams at the age of 24. But if the F1 fans are anything to go by, Verstappen has rubbed salt into the wounds of Hamilton who would have felt his age on the night, and whet the appetite of racing aficionados, still 98 days away before the rivalry resumes once more.