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F1 Midweek: Saying Cheers to 2021 in Roundtable Fashion

This week the Frontstretch Formula 1 crew looks back at the 2021 season.  From the end of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to Esteban Ocon’s surprising win to the question of how many races the US should host, they offer their thoughts on many of the year’s top storylines.

Favorite moments of the season

Caleb Miller: I love an underdog and a surprise victory, so my favorite moments of 2021 were Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris taking a one-two for McLaren at Monza (the only one-two for any team this season) and Esteban Ocon’s shocking first win in Hungary.

Alex Gintz: Hard to say. This was by far the best season of F1 I’ve been around to follow. Any instance of Sergio Perez making his car seven meters wide, normally in front of Lewis Hamilton, made me very happy. The collisions between Max Verstappen and Hamilton at Silverstone and Monza brought some ironic joy, showing how intense this title fight really was. Brazil and Saudi Arabia also feel special for that reason. I’ve enjoyed watching Yuki Tsunoda develop as well.

Ava Ladner: I think the upset story of seeing Esteban Ocon snag the win at Hungary has to stand out.  Alpine were showing nothing special, Fernando Alonso had begun to eclipse his teammate, and Ocon had struggled through a string of bad finishes.  But not only did Alpine play strategy to perfection, Alonso likely helped Ocon win by racing Lewis Hamilton as hard as he did, preventing an easy pass that would have permitted Hamilton to stalk Ocon.

Most questionable moments of the season?

Miller: The most questionable moments were Max Verstappen’s dive-bombs in Brazil and Saudi Arabia—both of which saw his momentum take him off track—the odd “brake-checking” incident between Verstappen and Hamilton in Saudi Arabia, and, of course, Michael Masi’s ridiculous, unprecedented call to bring the safety car in at the end of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Gintz: The first laps of Spa and the final laps of Abu Dhabi. Spa, as a whole, left a sour taste in my mouth. I don’t see much of an issue with rewarding points for a race that never really started. The top ten qualifiers didn’t end up where they were by luck. I echo Pedro de la Rosa’s point that races in such conditions were acceptable years back, which raises the question as to why this race couldn’t go ahead. However, if the drivers don’t feel they should be running, I value that opinion beyond all others. I also agree with Pierre Gasly’s point that reducing spray and improving drivability in wet conditions should be on the mind of the FIA and race control.

Elated as I was to see Verstappen claim his first title, the end of Abu Dhabi was a travesty. Neither Lewis Hamilton nor Max Verstappen deserved the predicament they found themselves in. Hamilton, with a championship in one hand and four fingers, and Verstappen having to wait hours upon hours just to have his title confirmed. The theatrics from Toto Wolff and Christian Horner only made things worse, to boot. And as for Mercedes in particular, what kind of race team brings a Queen’s Counsel barrister to the track is a question I can only hope to have answered before I retire.

Ladner: Spa might have been the most laughable debacle of the season–had it not been for the total mismanagement of the final laps of the Abu Dhabi GP.  That Spa even counted as a race is still one of the most baffling concepts and one that should be stricken from the official tallies.  A one-lap race is bad enough but Michael Masi’s strange overseeing of the safety-car and lapped-car rules just ended what had been a dramatic season with a poor denouement.

Who, excluding the champion, deserves some attention/love?

Miller: Carlos Sainz, who stepped into a new team, beat his teammate who has been at Ferrari since 2019 and came fifth in the overall driver’s standings. Sainz collected three podiums, finished every race, and was only outside of the points twice. His fantastic consistency and ability to adapt to a new car and team, while others like Ricciardo struggled to come to grips with their new environments, really made him stand out this year.

Gintz: Fernando Alonso. Coming back into the sport after a two-year absence, into a new team, with a calendar consisting of four tracks that hadn’t been present in his last season, and Imola, where he hadn’t raced since 2006, and managing an average finish of 9.9? Fantastic. Were it not for the uncertainty that regulation changes bring, I would be confidently expecting an Alonso win in 2022.

Ladner: Lando Norris.  He seems like he’s an old chap on the grid at this point but Norris, with three years at McLaren, is still just 22.  Not so long ago, McLaren were an afterthought on raceday but Norris appears to have helped the team raise their performance and he is now frequently racing for podiums with the off chance (Sochi) for a win.  Finishing sixth in the championship is a solid jump from ninth the previous year.

The US will host two GPs in 2022 and there is strong reason to believe that Las Vegas will be added to the calendar in 2023?  Is the US market sustainable?  Are three GPs the sweet spot?  Too many?  Not enough?

Miller: I don’t necessarily think three US Grands Prix are too many, but I do think the season itself has become untenably long, causing excessive stress on the team members who are now spending nearly the entire year traveling the globe. I think the US market could handle three Grands Prix, but I think that the addition of a Las Vegas race would have to come at the expense of an existing race on the calendar and I fear that F1 would ditch a classic European race, since F1 seems fairly attached to the Middle Eastern races at the moment. Plus, the last race in Las Vegas, the Caesars Palace Grand Prix, was a bit of a mess.

Gintz: Overall, American racing culture has never shown an overwhelming taste for the international side of things. Domestic series absolutely dominate the US market and oval and dirt racing are so deeply ingrained in our lives that we probably won’t see the US getting hooked on F1 overnight. The market is certainly strong enough to support two races if the track and racing are both up to standards. Barely five years ago it wasn’t clear that COTA could continue to sustain the United States Grand Prix, dividing that duty over multiple tracks isn’t a recipe for a net increase in American interest, in my opinion. If I’m in charge of Liberty Media, I’m more worried about getting Miami up and running before putting stock in Las Vegas.

Ladner: I get that the US is frequently the big market that companies want to exploit, along with China but any talk of a third GP in the country seems a bit of a reach.  Sure, there are enough people in the US and there’s a good chance that many fans might make the pilgrimage from other spots in the world but aside from the popularity of the Drive to Survive series, there is little that suggests that F1 should be adding Las Vegas to the schedule–especially if it causes the cancellation of a European GP.

Does Lewis Hamilton really walk away from the sport?  What kind of walk-off would that be if he were to do so? 

Miller: Not now. Hamilton will certainly be back next year. If he wins his eighth title next year, I could see him leaving the sport. Alternately, if Mercedes somehow totally botches the new regulations and is massively off the pace, I could also see him leaving the sport at the end of the year.

Gintz: Absolutely not. Hamilton knows he has what it takes to win an eighth title, and one horribly mismanaged championship decider won’t drive a competitor of his caliber away; reasonable as any desire to walk away may be.

Ladner: Nope.  Not happening.  If anything, Hamilton returns with a proverbial chip on his shoulder and the kind of eff you attitude that Michael Jordan and Tom Brady have used to win championships.

Favorite Nikita Mazepin moment

Miller: Crashing out on the third corner of the first lap of his first F1 race.

Gintz: I don’t have enough Aspirin to get me through that discussion.

Ladner: Nothing beats wrecking out of his first GP on the first lap without assistance.

Favorite GP of the season?

Miller: As a fan watching at home, Hungary or Italy take the cake for the chaos, championship implications, and surprise winners. But I was lucky enough to attend the US Grand Prix and was treated to a stellar, nail-biting race with plenty of action happening right in front of me at turn 13, so that has to be my favorite of the year.

Gintz: For my personal desire regarding the title? The Dutch GP and the United States GP both put a massive smile on my face. They were both awesome performances from Verstappen, and Zandvoort is a hell of a venue.
For excitement? Monza and Sochi were both massively nerve-wracking suspense fests, and what could have been if Norris had pitted for wet tyres in Russia…

Ladner: I would argue for Sochi–not that it is a great track but more how what started as a fairly common race turned into such a wild finish.  Norris had the win in sight but put too much faith in his aged tyres in the wet while teams and drivers with more experience began pitting.  The final running order looks nothing like the order with 15 laps to go and that’s a wonderful thing.

Parting thoughts on 2021?

Miller: This was the best F1 season I have ever seen, with an incredible title fight and a really close midfield. With new regulations coming in next year and a super talented grid, I’m more excited than ever before for the next season.

Gintz: It’s going to be hard to top… If race control hadn’t dropped the ball so often in the final leg of the year, I’d consider it the closest thing to a perfect season that I can recall. I particularly enjoyed the extra races that were introduced this season, and it pains me that F1 isn’t in a position to expand their calendar to a NASCAR-style season.

Ladner: We were finally given a title fight that lasted through the closing races and were then treated to the most confusing conclusions.  I feel that the season says more about our lives at the moment than it does the sport.  We are filled with energy, desire, and capable of beautiful things and then coronavirus changes the narrative when we think we’ve reached an end.

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