Will Abu Dhabi 2021 be remembered as a great decision maker for the F1 title?
The battle for the Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship has only been played 30 times in 72 seasons.
A true one-on-one winner is even rarer, while a passing on the last lap of one title contender over the other to tip the battle in their favor is unique.
So now the dust has settled on Abu Dhabi 2021, where does he rank among the big title makers?
Some will even consider it a sacrilege to ask this question and to dismiss 2021 from the debate accordingly. But given the controversy that has engulfed the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, this is one of the most hotly debated finals scoring factors, more an argument for it than against it.
It all depends on the definition of “big,” something that is subjective and that is inherently in the eye of the beholder.
For devoted fans of one title protagonist or the other, the outcome will undoubtedly be the dominant factor, but in this case, it doesn’t matter. It’s the journey that counts. Plus, the caliber of the drivers and the fact that this was a rare generational battle gave him an added thrill of excitement.
The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix setup was remarkable. It was the culmination of a one-season battle between two elite level riders, one a proven all-time great and the other a growing big, with both levels dead – except Max Verstappen’s Countdown Advantage. Since 1974, the first two protagonists of the title had not entered the final race on equal terms.
The intensity, built up over months of fighting that had already turned into crashes – most recent only a week earlier in Saudi Arabia – was as marked as it has been for any title maker .
Add to the mix two great teams – in Mercedes, the most successful dominant of all time, and the re-emerging Red Bull – and you have the perfect ingredients for a title maker. Two teams, two drivers and a season of performance swaying back and forth formed the perfect foundation for the shootout in the final race.
The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was largely straightforward but limited by two major hot spots.
The first was Verstappen’s attempt on the first lap to pass Hamilton on the inside of Turn 6, with the Mercedes driver cutting the track.
Hamilton argued he was forced off the track and the marshals were happy, meaning he kept the lead and pulled away in the first stint. Most will only remember it as a footnote given what followed.
Hamilton maintained control for much of the race, although Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez made a vital intervention by delaying him thanks to extended the first stint and then brilliant driving for a lap and a half.
This time-saving effect meant Hamilton didn’t have time to make a pit stop under the mid-race VSC deployed when Antonio Giovinazzi retired, making Perez’s defense one of the Key cameos of the season.
But that all changed when Nicholas Latifi crashed – a completely normal and honest racing mistake that has since drawn unforgivable bile and shocking death threats on social media.
The FIA certainly did not follow its procedures, with the timing of the overtaken cars being passed on lap 57, meaning the race should not have resumed on lap 58.
But there is another dimension to this error, because since the track was clear while the cars were still on lap 56, there was a potential window to ask the cars on the lap to pass on time.
Then, depending on the rules, the race could resume on lap 58 and the same last lap could have gone perfectly legitimately – especially if all the overtaken cars had been passed.
This is clearly a hypothesis, but it highlights that the problem with what happened in Abu Dhabi was more procedural than fundamentally the result.
The FIA has yet to provide a proper explanation and abide by its own rules, but the scenario with the slowest fighter getting a free pit stop and taking advantage is common in F1 – even if it s ‘was an unusually high manifestation of this.
This is not an FIA defense, but a reminder that the unacceptable errors in race control extended beyond the overly simplistic argument that the race had to end under the safety car.
While the fury of Mercedes and Hamilton is quite understandable, you also can’t blame Red Bull and Verstappen for taking the opportunity.
Verstappen’s grip advantage was significant, but it was a smart decision to dive into the hairpin at Turn 5. In part, it took Hamilton by surprise as he prepared to maximize his outing, but it also meant that the movement did not have to occur at turn 6 with the risk of repeating the first lap. Hamilton fought well and backed off alongside Verstappen on Turn 9, but the battle was lost.
Whatever the circumstances and the uneven levels of grip it was an incredible way for the Championship to be resolved. Verstappen fans cheered, Hamilton fans were angry but the neutrals were stunned at how everything turned out.
This is one of the defining characteristics of a great headline decision maker. Realistically either driver would have been a worthy champion and although Verstappen was lucky that day – capitalizing on that fortune with flying colors – it was a championship decided over 22 weekends of race.
We will talk about Abu Dhabi 2021 in terms of controversy, which is not the purest of reasons. But this debate is a bit more complex than many present – poorly reflecting the race control and determination to ensure a grandstand finish, but falling short of the deliberate attempt to tip the Championship against Hamilton that some claim. to be.
In our podcast episode exploring the controversy, we explained at length why this reflects the FIA so poorly and concerns more than just the fate of the World Championship.
This battle of the last round will also be remembered as it was unprecedented and may very well not happen again. And when it comes to the most famous and talked about decision makers, it’s the ones with the late drama and controversy that are lodged in memory.
Because of that controversy, it’s up there with Adelaide 1994 or Jerez 1997, combining that with the late drama of a 2008 Brazil. This finale will always stay in my mind as the greatest title maker simply because of the late drama nature – one of two other occasions the title’s fate shifted in the final round, the other being 1964.
Adelaide 1986 also stands out as a great decision maker due to the spectacle of high-speed tire failure from Nigel Mansell and outsider Alain Prost taking the title.
It is these stories that mark great decision makers, even if they are often misrepresented – something which is the case with Jack Brabham pushing his fuel-strapped Cooper across the line at Sebring in 1959.
It showed admirable determination and strength but, in fact, it made no difference whether he won the title or not – although he couldn’t be sure at the time.
For many, Abu Dhabi 2021 will be a sore spot in perpetuity and the FIA must prove that its process of analysis and ensuing improvements is taken seriously and makes sense. But just because the end doesn’t justify the means, that doesn’t mean he can’t be considered a great title maker.
After all, after all, sport is combative and potentially divisive. What is quite clear is that this title maker will never, ever be forgotten and produced one of the most amazing climaxes in Grand Prix history.
If this was just a controversy it wouldn’t be enough, but there was more to what happened and as such it will be discussed for as long as motorsport counts.