2021 F1 Race 22: Yas Marinas Circuit
It all comes down to this for the drivers title, the constructors title, and the red hot 'best of the rest' third place in the constructors championship. Hold onto your seats for this one.
The final race of the season delivered on the promise of fireworks, but it all began on Friday in free practice 1.
Friday was a mixed practice session for the teams as we would later find out Mercedes were not using the 'Brazil' engine in Hamilton's car, opting instead to save mileage on it until Saturday's final free practice session before going into qualifying and the race with the best possible package. Some drivers including both the Finnish competitors found the new layout around the hotel section to push them to their limit, Valtteri Bottas tapping the wall at turn 14, but getting away with just tyre contact, Kimi Raikkonen made much stronger contact ending FP2, a bad start to his final race weekend in F1.
There was mixed opinion on the new track layout with some drivers believing it had made the track easier for overtaking moves, whilst both Alonso and Raikkonen appeared unimpressed and doubted whether the new layout would do anything but reduce lap times.
FP1 belonged to Max Verstappen, with second blood going to Hamilton leading the timing boards in FP2. A noteworthy performance from Ocon in FP2 got him second fastest on the timing sheet.
Moving into Saturday everything began to hot up, and it wasn't just the sun beating down on the tarmac causing a sizzle in the air. This will be Honda's last race in Formula 1 and so seeing Verstappen just a couple of tenths off Hamilton whilst the sister team Alpha Tauri held sixth and seventh fastest in a crowd that includes, Ferrari, McLaren, and Alpine, must have been incredible. Perez held fourth in the final practice session meaning of the top seven fastest cars Honda power was behind more than 50% of them. Little separated Ferrari and McLaren, although the Ferrari drivers appeared more comfortable on track for all three of the practice sessions.
Into qualifying, we went with high expectations for the top two teams, and a close eye on who would get themselves into Q3.
Russel was out-qualified by Latifi for the second time as both Williams drivers were knocked out in Q1, and Raikkonen completed his last qualifying session, only faster than the Haas drivers for P18. Both Aston Martin's were out in Q2, the team will be disappointed that this has become normality for them this season, and will hope for better performance next year. Gasly was only good enough for P12 and Giovanazzi ended what will likely be his last qualifying session in F1 P14.
Many drivers felt aggrieved at the queue to get in a hot lap with several complaining during and after qualifying that the traffic seriously impacted their time. Verstappen made the decision to complete Q2 on the soft tyre, committing him to using it for the start of the race and guaranteeing the battle at the front would be fought on separate strategies.
Moving onto to Q3, Ferrari and McLaren both had their drivers through but all eyes were at the top of the table.
After some blistering laps by all involved, it was advantage Redbull when the flag dropped for the end of qualifying. Verstappen lifting off on his very last lap as he heard Hamilton was P2. The wingmen of the top teams were split by a tenth of a second, but that meant a P4 for Perez, whilst only a P6 start for Bottas in his last start as a Mercedes driver. Norris powered in a magnificent lap for McLaren taking third place on the grid for Sunday ahead of the Ferrari's in fifth and seventh. Ricciardo rounded out the top ten behind Ocon and Tsunoda.
The gauntlet was set for the race on Sunday, opposing strategies at the front, the wingmen out positioned by McLaren and Ferrari, and everything to play for.
Race day. Before the F1 race began the final race of the F2 season was underway, Piastri, F2 champion, managed another victory, although it wasn't enough to secure him a seat in F1 next season. He will likely take a year in sports-car racing and some reserve driver roles in 2022 hoping that an opportunity will materialise in 2023.
Lined up on the grid Verstappen with the soft tyre and Hamilton with the medium everyone expected to see a leap by the Redbull. Hamilton was the victor of the first few seconds, holding his nerve better and launching his car on the medium tyre with more ferocity for an early overtake into turn 1. The racing continued wheel to wheel to turn six where Verstappen was last of the late brakers into the corner, making an overtake whilst remaining on the track. Hamilton decided to jump the corner as the only other option would be hard braking and losing multiple positions. The race director was immediately bombarded with messages from Mercedes and Redbull, however, this was a decision the stewards would make. No further action was harshly criticised by Redbull who felt Hamilton gained an advantage having entered the corner just a couple of tenths ahead, but then remaining over a second and a half ahead after the corner cut.
At this point, many of us thought we had seen the high point of drama, and many commentators were already uncapping their pens ready to capture the moment as a hot talking point for after the race, little did we all know what was to come.
By lap 12 Verstappen was starting to struggle with the soft tyre and the timing board backed up his sense of losing ground to his rival. Hamilton pulling out a five-second advantage. Lap 14 saw Verstappen pit, Mercedes reacted one lap later, both cars were now on hard tyres, and Perez was out in front on a different strategy extending his initial stint. Unquestionably this was to help Verstappen, but Perez showed why the second Redbull seat is his for another season. With 20 laps on his soft tyres he battled Hamilton for a lap and a half, never giving up until it was clear there was no more he could do, both drivers made excellent clean moves on one another and gave us the highlight of the race for those that tune in to watch wheel to wheel racing. Verstappen would make up six seconds whilst this battle raged on and leapt past his teammate with a tow and DRS to hunt down Hamilton when it was clear Perez could do no more. Verstappen described his teammate as 'a legend' over the radio once the tussle for first was finally over on lap 21. Hamilton showed his class in maintaining his tyres throughout the battle and managing to once again use his experience and racecraft to create a gap to Verstappen in the laps that followed.
Raikkonen's career would end without a race finish, a brake by wire failure forcing him into a barrier, and after a new wing the team couldn't guarantee the issue was resolved, so Kimi was wheeled into the garage for a final time, a silent farewell to the most experienced driver ever in Formula 1. His teammate would suffer gearbox failure leading to his retirement a few laps later, both Alfa drivers leaving the sport quietly. Russell then ended his last race with Williams suffering a mechanical failure.
Once again Honda's power proved itself strong for Alpha Tauri, by lap 54 they held sixth and seventh position ahead of both Mclaren's and one of the Ferrari's. Sainz had performed outstandingly and was holding fourth position, but Bottas was hot on his tail. The race looked as though it may end here, the mid-pack racing each other hard, but Alpine seemed able to hold off Ricciardo for the final points places and with just a few laps to go there was no chance of a pit stop gaining anything but the fastest lap.
This was all turned on its head at turn 14, Latifi had been battling Schumacher in the last place of the race, a lap later he found himself getting caught out where the two fins and made contact in free practice. The yellow flag quickly became a safety car and we all sat with our hearts in our mouths, after such an eventful season there was a real possibility of watching the decider end under the precession of a safety car. Redbull took a chance, with nothing to lose they pulled Verstappen in for a set of soft tyres, if there were any more racing laps left they wanted their man to have the best chance possible. It felt like a final Hail Mary, but would soon become critical. Mercedes, as they have done season after season, decided that despite the stop from Verstappen track position ruled supreme, opting to leave Hamilton out on his set of heavily worn hard tyres.
5 laps to go, would this race restart?
Controversy that will no doubt spill into the new year and beyond, with pundits from every crevice of the motoring world forming an opinion on what happened next. Initially lapped cars were advised they would not be able to pass. Redbull was perturbed by this decision, with four cars between Hamilton and Verstappen even if racing began, the lapped cars were in a hot fight for points and would not be diving off the track for Verstappen. Mercedes, on hearing this felt vindicated for their strategy call, track position would be king whether there was a restart or not, Hamilton had raced himself into 1st place and he would almost certainly now hold position to the chequered flag for a hard-fought and brilliantly raced win. Max had performed incredible to this point, nothing can be taken from either driver, for the final race we may have all liked to see them get some more wheel to wheel action in, but no one that has followed this sport for any length of time could take a crum away from either driver for their performance.
With just two laps to go, it appeared the race director was warming up an idea, radio calls from both Mercedes and Redbull were thrown in like an over-active Wimbledon ball boy to the FIA and particularly Michael Masi. The decision came, in an attempt to remain in line with what all the teams had asked for at the beginning of the season, the race director ordered only the lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen to overtake the safety car now that the obstruction was clear, those behind Verstappen were told to hold station. The safety car was then told to return to the pits, we would get 1 more lap of this season, and it would be a full racing lap. The decision made at the race director's discretion was unprecedented but appeared to follow the desire from all teams that where possible races do not end under a safety car, as would later be outlined in Redbull's rebuttal to a Mercedes protest.
One final lap of the season, heart monitors across the world were pinging up as race fans watched wide-eyed.
Verstappen hugged Hamilton close on the restart, the British driver's Mercedes making a good getaway along the main straight and into turns 1,2,3 and 4. Then turn five, the new turn five with its sweeping turn replacing the pointing edges of before and Verstappen went for it, a move that at first appeared too far away but with fresh soft tyres his Redbull hung on around the bend, remained on the track and flew out the other end. Hamilton was in hot pursuit, pushing his Mercedes power unit to give him every last ounce of performance. Verstappen went to the very edge of the rule book with a weave that just remained legal. Hamilton then pushed once again and appeared he may be able to make a move into turn nine, the cars entered the turn wheel to wheel for a heart-pounding fight. Verstappen's fresh soft tyres paid dividends as his Redbull held on better as they raced towards the hotel. Within a few seconds, we had a new World Champion. Max Verstappen and his Redbull team erupted with joy, Mercedes were silent, Hamilton had put in a brilliant performance, but as with any sport, it isn't over until the very end, and with a battle that will be remembered it finished with the silver arrow in second place. Radio calls of outrage were screamed at Michael Masi from Toto Wolff, the response a simple, 'today we had a motor race'. Honours split with Mercedes taking the constructors championship, and Redbull taking home the driver's trophy. Some celebrated whilst others felt aggrieved, the FIA has been as inconsistent as any other sporting governing body, a tough season with split-second decisions thrust upon them, after a long season many will feel that we witnessed the racing we wanted, and after the dust settles, decisions went both for and against both the two top teams. The people that govern this sport have some of the toughest jobs and will always be soft targets for criticism, today was no different, as ever we must remember that without them the sport we love wouldn't exist so whether we agree with them or not, we must remain respectful of the stewards and the FIA whilst we should also voice our agreement or disagreement in a fair manner.
Twenty-two races, a long season, an epic battle, and a finale that will be remembered for years to come. We, the spectators, the supporters, and the viewers, were the true champions this year, witnessing drivers at their peak, teams at their edge, and controversy from beginning to end. Lets hope for another season of fantastic racing as we enter the new generation of F1 vehicles in 2022.
Notable mentions for Carlos Sainz, a fantastic year for him, clinching 5th overall in the season's standings, beating his Ferrari teammate in his first season with the team, and being instrumental in giving Ferrari the edge to win 3rd place in the constructor championship ahead of his old team McLaren. Alonso has also performed valiantly on his return, getting himself a podium with Alpine, and Vettel had a great start with Aston Martin, bringing a podium finish. Latifi out qualified Russell twice this season in clear improvement to his one-lap pace. Tsunoda has been inconsistent, but when he has been able to show his pace we've seen moments of real race speed that we hope to see more of next year.
The final podium at Yas Marinas was occupied by three different team colours. Sainz snapping up third place ahead of Yuki Tsuonda at the flag. Hamilton standing on the second step and Verstappen at the very top. The families of the top two drivers showed real class with Lewis' dad Anthony going over to congratulate Max, and Jos Verstappen sharing a moment with Hamilton and his father after the race. These were scenes that were moving against a backdrop of Mercedes marching a barrister to the FIA. It reminds us that away from the corporations and businesses that are in F1, this is a human sport, there will be winners and losers, but it is the sportsman and their teams and families that make this such a great spectacle to witness.
With a heavy heart we say goodbye to Honda, just as they began to make real inroads they leave, it feels a little like history repeating itself. Hopefully, the big 'H' will return soon, until then Redbull will continue with their own branding of the Honda power unit. The Japanese manufacturer must be elated at how their final season has ended, a championship that just a few years ago would have been a bad joke in the boardroom is finally attached to the Honda name. Farewell, Honda.