Formula One’s long, competitive, controversial, and tense 2021 campaign will come to a close under the lights of Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit on Sunday (December 12).
Championship protagonists Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen will enter the weekend tied in points, with 369.5 apiece. This is a development nearly 50 years in the making, as the last time two drivers entered the season finale tied in points was 1974 when Emerson Fittipaldi bested Clay Regazzoni by finishing in fourth to Regazzoni’s 11th place at Watkins Glen.
This tie almost certainly means whichever driver finishes ahead of the other will be the champion. In the event that both Verstappen and Hamilton fail to finish, or finish outside the points, Verstappen would win the title by virtue of having more wins on the season (9 –8).
Should Verstappen finish in ninth place, and Hamilton finish tenth while taking an extra point for the fastest lap, the title would be decided by race wins once again. Otherwise, Hamilton must outperform Verstappen to take the championship.
Even without being tied, this situation has become less than common for F1 in recent years, as it is only the third year (2014, 2016) in the turbo-hybrid era that the title race will be decided in the final round of the season.
During this era (2014-present) it has become somewhat of a custom that Hamilton has the championship secured by this point of the year, but the omnipresence and pace of Verstappen and Red Bull Racing means the 2021 season may just be the most challenging of all of Hamilton’s title campaigns.
For Verstappen, his first season as a championship contender couldn’t be going much better. Were it not for a tire failure in Azerbaijan, and controversial contact with Hamilton at Silverstone and Monza, Verstappen may have wound up some 50 or so points clear of Hamilton by this point.
Nevertheless, history will be made in the Emirates this weekend.
For Hamilton, there is a record-breaking eighth driver’s title on the line, which would make him the most successful driver in the sport’s history in terms of titles won. Hamilton already has bragging rights in terms of race wins (103), pole positions (103), and podiums (181). The title record is the last mountain in F1 that Sir Lewis has yet to summit, and with an astonishing fast Mercedes in his hand, he’s in prime position to check that box off his list.
Verstappen is already, by and large, the most successful Dutch driver to ever grace the grid. His 19 wins are 19 more than the next successful Dutch driver – his father, Jos – and he became the youngest Grand Prix winner in history when he took his maiden win at Barcelona in 2016.
Verstappen’s season has been one of impeccable form, no doubt. However, there’s also a moral victory on the line for the 24-year-old sensation. Verstappen beating Hamilton to the title would mark the first time that Mercedes hasn’t swept both the driver’s and constructors’ crowns since 2014. While Red Bull is 28 points behind Mercedes in the constructor’s race, the fight for the driver’s championship is alive and well.
Nothing would shout “momentum” for 2022 like knocking off the era’s most successful driver in the final year of the current regulations.
Certainly for the first half of the season Mercedes seemed to be caught off guard by the pace of Verstappen and Red Bull, but massive strides in the engine department have produced an exceptional straight-line speed advantage for Mercedes, while the Red Bull remains the better car in terms of aero performance and medium speed cornering.
Unfortunately for Red Bull, the recent revamp of the Yas Marina Circuit saw low and medium speed sections of sectors one and three reprofiled into more flowing, faster corners. This may lend Mercedes a massive advantage on Sunday. And with two long DRS zones in the mix, Red Bull’s strategists will be working overtime to give Verstappen every possible edge they can manage.
The checkered flag will also fall on Kimi Raikkonen’s Formula One career this weekend, where the 2007 World Champion will complete his 19th full season in the sport. His career has included 21 wins, 103 podiums, and the aforementioned championship in 2007.
Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo teammate since 2019, Antonio Giovinazzi, will also be leaving the paddock at the season’s end. The Italian will move to Formula E for 2022 with Penske Racing, while Guanyu Zhou and Valtteri Bottas will fill the newly vacated seats at Alfa Romeo.
Despite an established great like Raikkonen saying farewell, and the curtain falling on Giovinazzi’s career with the Italian never having a chance to shine in competitive machinery, the 2021 season will undoubtedly be remembered for years to come.
Some will see this year as a changing of the guard, where the sport’s youngest winner finally held the dominant veteran’s feet to the fire until the very end. Some will remember it as a display of Hamilton’s near-superhuman ability to overcome almost any adversity on track. Some, like Netflix, will reminisce on the fiery words and political punches thrown between team principals Toto Wolff and Christian Horner.
Either way, the sport is most certainly witnessing what will one day be referred to as “the good old days.”
Those good old days will be better for one driver than another, and there are only 58 laps until we find out who that will be.
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