Formula 1 has a new king of the podium. Dutch young gun Max Verstappen has claimed a maiden World Championship, snatching victory from seven-time winner Lewis Hamilton on the final lap of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but it’s not quite the fairytale F1 fans had hoped for. In fact, this story seems far from over. Laden with controversy, marred by appeals and struck by outrage, this Championship bout has all the hallmarks of an all-time classic that won’t soon be forgotten.
Heading into the final few laps, Red Bull driver Verstappen was a solid 11 seconds behind Hamilton, who had amassed a sizeable lead on the rest of the pack. According to team boss Christian Horner, the only hope for the Dutch driver at this point was a ‘miracle’. By divine intervention or something more callous, he got one.
A Nicholas Latifi crash forced a safety car out onto the track but it was what happened next that has Hamilton’s Mercedes team fuming. Race director Michael Masi made the last-minute decision to allow drivers to overtake the safety car, a move that had previously been prohibited. The change in ruling put Verstappen directly behind Hamilton, with the added benefit of a fresh set of soft tyres.
Needless to say, the British legend couldn’t hold off his young rival, with Verstappen overtaking Hamilton on the fifth turn of the final lap and sealing an incredible victory. But not everyone is happy. Mercedes boss Toto Wolff was heard shouting through the radio saying “this is not right”, a sentiment that was followed up with formalities.
Alleging a breach against the classification, Mercedes lodged two official protests after the race concluded, which, if successful, would have overturned the result, giving Hamilton the win and the championship. Both were rejected.
“Having considered the various statements made by the parties, the Stewards determine that although Car 33 did at one stage, for a very short period of time, move slightly in front of Car 44, at a time when both cars where accelerating and braking, it moved back behind Car 44 and it was not in front when the Safety Car period ended (i.e. at the line),” the FIA’s official statement read.
While the climax has done nothing to quell the ongoing Verstappen/Hamilton controversy, it matters little now. The 24-year-old Dutchman has assumed the throne formerly held by his esteemed rival opening the door for an all-time great career.
“We have been pushing each other to the limit every single time. There have been quite some tough races physically because you were just flat-out all the time, there was no lap to rest, and you know, throughout the whole weekend – qualifying, race – it was important to always try and be perfect which is very hard in Formula 1 to always be perfect,” Verstappen said. “A little lock-up can make the difference between P1 and P2 so in the championship we had, that was massive, and that’s why was really high.”
For F1 fans, the conclusions, while controversial, is almost fitting. The 2021 season has reignited a new flame of competition, formerly dominated by seven-time winner Lewis Hamilton. With a new champion on board to lead the future of Formula 1 racing, the Drive to Survive era season is gaining serious traction. In a post-race interview, Verstappen was quick to praise his rival.
“Lewis is an amazing driver, an amazing competitor, he really made it really hard for us and everybody loves to see that. Of course, the two teams run against each other and we have tough times but I think that’s part of the sport, it’s emotion, everyone wants to win,” he said.” It could have gone either way today but for sure next year we’ll try again, come back, and hopefully do it all over again.”
In the wake of the result, Mercedes has confirmed via social media it plans to further appeal the decision from the stewards. This would mean the team could launch a full appeal against the verdict, giving them 96 hours to make a decision. While the outcome is far from set in stone and contention swells over the entire season, one thing is for certain – Formula 1’s greatest rivalry is only just beginning.