With the two championship leaders level on points as one of the most epic battles in motorsport drew to a close, no one could have predicted the final lap drama that took place at the Yas Marina circuit. Amrit Virdi discusses the race and its aftermath, and what this means for the future of Formula One.
Heading into the race weekend, tensions were undoubtedly at their highest between Mercedes and Red Bull, as both had the constructers and driver’s championships well within their reach. After the wheel-to-wheel racing, 50G crashes and shady interviews that the season has brought us, it was no surprise that viewership for this finale was up by 84% from last year, as fans from all around the globe tuned in for a thrilling ending.
The race marked an end of a lot of eras and was surrounded with a bittersweet atmosphere. It was F1 legend Kimi Raikkonen’s last race before his retirement, and the last race from his Alfa Romeo teammate Antonio Giovinazzi, who was left without a seat next year. It was also the end of the W-12 era of cars and featured the last race of George Russell at Williams and Valterri Bottas at Mercedes before a reshuffle of seats next year.
7-time world champion Lewis Hamilton was seeking to retain his winning streak and beat Michael Schumacher’s record for the number of championships held by a driver, whilst Max Verstappen was hungry for his first world championship title. This was the first time in a good few years that Hamilton has been truly challenged, and as a fan it has been incredible to watch this season.
Hamilton, at this point, was still in the lead and was on track to win despite his older, hard tyres until chaos ensued
The drama started right at the start, when Max seemingly pushed Lewis off the track, which ended giving Lewis quite an advantage. FIA radio communication from Red Bull to race director Michael Masi revealed the team’s frustration at the decision for Lewis to retain such a lead, yet this didn’t last for long as Sergio Perez managed to hold up Hamilton massively after his pit stop, allowing his teammate Verstappen to catch up and for racing to really begin. However Hamilton, at this point, was still in the lead and was on track to win despite his older, hard tyres until chaos ensued.
A massive crash from Nicholas Latifi (who is thankfully okay) with five laps to go is when safety cars threw tyre strategies out of the window. We all predicted it would be action-reaction between Max and Lewis’ pitstops, however Mercedes decided not to pit in this safety car in order to not lose position to Verstappen. Like the rest of us, they probably assumed that the race would be finished under the safety car, however Michael Masi had other plans. A snap decision to allow for racing in the final lap meant that Max zoomed ahead of Lewis on his new soft tyres. Despite his best efforts to catch up, Lewis was stuck – his tyres just weren’t good enough, and in a dramatic turn of events Max Verstappen went on to become the 2021 World Champion, whilst Mercedes retained their position as the winner of the Constructers Championship.
As indicated by the extremely anger-fuelled FIA radio communication we got to hear in that last lap, Mercedes, particularly team principal Toto Wolff, were not happy with the FIA’s decision to allow only five lapped cars to overtake the safety car to allow for racing to ensue. Since then, other drivers such as Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel have even been shocked at the decision. Wolff was pleading for there not to be a safety car and for lapped cars to not overtake the safety car, to which Masi simply replied ‘this is a motor race’.
This controversial decision led to nearly a week-long social media blackout from Mercedes, and since then the official Mercedes accounts and Toto and Suzie Wolff have expressed their grievances at the FIA’s decisions last week. It is also speculated that the events have made Lewis Hamilton himself question his future in the sport – despite his contract, it is unsure as to whether he will return to race again next year, as the driver himself has been silent since the final race. The team lodged two protests against the FIA, which were rejected, but ultimately decided not to go ahead with an appeal, making Verstappen the confirmed champion for this year.
Personally, I think that the FIA did handle the situation badly, and a decision about cars overtaking the safety car should have been made sooner, if it were even to have been made at all. It seems that power plays behind the scenes are making the sport lose it’s integrity; from next season it is expected that attempts to rectify this will be made however, as team principles will have less access to communication with the race director during the race so that steward’s decisions are not impacted. As a Hamilton fan myself, although it was frustrating to see Verstappen win, I do commend Max’s impeccable talent, and an appeal to take the title off of him would just add unnecessary drama and belittle the FIA in a time where they are already on thin ice with fans. He did deserve the championship if he won in a fair race – yet based on the whole race, Lewis was on track to win, and the decisions made in the final lap just don’t sit right with me.
To maintain the integrity of the sport in the future, I hope the FIA are clearer on their rules and don’t allow for external influences to affect decision made by the stewards and race director. It would be a shame to see one of the greatest drivers leave the sport because of their controversial decisions, so I hope that next year brings a new wave of honesty and reliability from the sport, and allows for what is right at the end of the day – fair racing, regardless of the outcome.
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