At the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this Sunday, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen will look to emerge victorious from one of the most dramatic championship contests Formula One has ever seen.
It’s been incredible, it’s been unpredictable and it’s been controversial. It might sound clichéd, but if you were to make a checklist of all the things you need to make a truly great championship fight, this really has had them all.
The stakes are clear. They are level on points, so winner takes all. In the case of a tie, Verstappen wins the title as he has one more victory over the season.
Here’s all the ingredients of this year’s fight and why they have all combined together to make this year’s battle so incredibly special.
Two generational talents
One of the great parts of this year’s championship has been how massively different the two protagonists are in terms of where they are in their lives and careers.
On one side is British driver Hamilton, 36 years old, a seven-time world champion, a global superstar and an increasingly vocal advocate of social change. Hamilton has won more races than any other driver and currently sits joint top of the all-time list with Michael Schumacher in career championships. An eighth championship would surely make Hamilton F1’s undisputed GOAT.
On the other is Dutch driver Verstappen, 24 years old, who keeps a much lower profile away from racing. His father, Jos, was a racer and former teammate of Schumacher in the 1990s. Verstappen is going for his first world championship and seems the most likely driver to challenge the records Hamilton has been breaking over the last few seasons.
This finale is the stuff of Hollywood filmmakers’ dreams. It will either be a passing of the torch moment or an achievement F1 has never seen before. It’s the classic tale of two generations clashing. Whatever the sport, it’s difficult not to find that kind of storyline compelling.
There are a few similarities between the two, however. Both drivers were seen as prodigious talents from an early age. Like Hamilton in 2007, Verstappen entered Formula One in 2015 earmarked as a future world champion. Red Bull and Mercedes both wanted him on their programme — ultimately it was Red Bull’s ability to give him an immediate race seat with junior team Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri), which Mercedes could not match, that swayed the Dutchman. He made his debut aged 17.
Hamilton won a championship in his second season in 2008 with McLaren after a near-miss as a rookie, but was far from polished as a driver in the early years of his career. Before he joined Mercedes in 2013, Hamilton’s form was frustratingly erratic — he would claim a stunning race victory one week and collide with another driver the next.
Verstappen’s early career was similar in that sense. Almost unbelievably talented, he became F1’s youngest race winner at the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix, his first race with Red Bull, but his aggressive driving style was criticised in the early years by three former world champions in Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen.
Two evenly matched teams
The stars aligned in an almost perfect way for Red Bull this year. Hamilton and Mercedes have dominated F1 since 2014 and this has been the hardest the German manufacturer has had to work for a championship in that time.
Red Bull and Honda’s partnership effectively struck gold in 2021. Honda had a horrible time of things with McLaren from 2015 until 2017, but the progress made with Red Bull was clear in the years after they joined forces in 2019. With Red Bull’s car-building prowess as strong as it’s ever been, an engine that could fight Mercedes put them right at the front of the field.
A change of technical regulations for the 2021 season also helped Red Bull. With F1’s major regulation overhaul delayed until 2022 due to the pandemic, the teams agreed to keep the same basic underpinnings of the cars from 2020 to 2021. The idea was to save costs but there was also a concern that Pirelli’s tyres — which haven’t been properly developed for three years due to the Italian manufacturer switching focus to the next set of regulations — would not be able to deal with another year of development of the 2020 cars.
The solution was to cut away parts of the floor via the technical regulations and simplify the designs of barge boards and rear brake ducts. It may sound very techy and tedious, but those changes had a bigger negative impact on Mercedes’ design philosophy than Red Bull’s, meaning Mercedes lost serious ground to its rival over the winter while Red Bull made relative gains. The result was two cars that look very similar to last year’s but are much more closely matched in performance.
Of course, the key third part of that title-contending equation is the man in the car. Verstappen has risen to the role of championship contender supremely. He has said he found large parts of 2019 and 2020 fairly boring, as he would often be racing on his own for third position, but he very quickly realised in preseason testing this year he had a car capable of challenging for the title.
He’s shown no sign of that being too daunting a task. Several people at Red Bull have remarked to ESPN how amazed they are at how calm and robotic Verstappen has seemed through the season’s most intense moments this year. While everyone knew he was very good coming into 2021, this year has been confirmation of how incredibly talented the Dutchman is.
Before we get on to the collisions and controversies between the pair, it is important to remember both drivers have turned in championship-calibre performances this season.
Verstappen has had several incredibly rounded weekend performances. At his first Dutch Grand Prix, Verstappen was faultless in front of a raucous home crowd and dominated all weekend. He seemed to be the only person in Zandvoort who didn’t realise the magnitude of what he was achieving.
At the U.S. Grand Prix, Verstappen withstood race-long pressure from Hamilton to win. In Mexico, he passed both Mercedes drivers on the run down to Turn 1 to lead. He has looked like a champion for much of the season.
For Hamilton, the standout performance of his season so far was at the Brazilian Grand Prix. His fightback through the field at Interlagos, both in sprint qualifying and then again in the race itself, was a sublime showcase of all of Hamilton’s special talents and a reminder that he often performs at his best when he feels as though his back is against the wall.
Hamilton’s victory at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix was also impressive as he held off Verstappen’s much faster Red Bull which was also on fresher tyres towards the end of the race.
Collisions and near-misses on track
The intensity of this season has been elevated by the fact Hamilton and Verstappen have collided on three occasions.
The first of these was the British Grand Prix, when Hamilton hit Verstappen as the Red Bull driver tried to overtake him around the outside of Copse corner on the opening lap. Christian Horner later labelled the seven-time world champion’s move “amateurish” and said Hamilton had put Verstappen’s safety in jeopardy.
Hamilton reasoned that he had avoided collisions with Verstappen one too many times. He and Mercedes contended Verstappen could have gone wide and prevented what happened and that the Red Bull driver also took way more speed into the corner than he had in qualifying, when he had a more agile car with far less fuel in the tank.
Hamilton got a time penalty but fought back through the field to win the race while Verstappen was sent to the hospital for precautionary check-ups.
To say Red Bull were angry about how Silverstone unfolded would probably be downplaying it somewhat. While they were furious at Hamilton ‘only’ getting a 10-second penalty, Red Bull was also upset with Mercedes celebrating the victory while Verstappen was still being checked in hospital. Compounding all of that was the fact the collision meant Red Bull lost an engine — which Vestappen incurred a grid penalty for later in the year — and had to pay a significant repair bill in the first year under Formula One’s cost cap.
Whoever was right and wrong in all of that, the tone around the title fight has never been the same since.
A second collision followed at the Italian Grand Prix in September, when Verstappen tried to pass Hamilton on the inside of the first chicane but ended up on top of his rival’s car in the gravel trap. Mercedes boss Toto Wolff labelled Verstappen’s move a “professional foul” and the stewards agreed the Dutch driver was predominantly to blame on that occasion, handing him a three-place grid drop for the next race.
The third, and strangest, collision was at last weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. While defending the lead, Verstappen ran himself and Hamilton off the road at Turn 1. Red Bull told him to give the position back in fear of a penalty and he slowed dramatically in the middle of the back straight to do so. Hamilton, unaware Verstappen had been given the order to give the position back, appeared confused or caught in two minds about what to do and ended up slamming into the back of the Red Bull.
Hamilton labelled Verstappen “crazy”, while Verstappen and Red Bull were confused as to why Hamilton had not simply passed him on the left.
With neither driver wanting to give the other the lead before the DRS detection point, which would aid their chances of an overtake on the run to Turn 1, the collision seemed to be a perfect storm of a misunderstanding between two drivers and two drivers attempting some form of gamesmanship, all playing out over the course of a few seconds. However, the stewards found Verstappen predominantly to blame when it emerged the data from his car confirmed he had slammed on the brakes directly in front of Hamilton, resulting in the collision.
On top of those collisions, there have been some close calls. At Imola Verstappen forced Hamilton wide at Turn 1 while wrestling the lead from him. That moment would be crucial later in Hamilton’s reasoning at Silverstone, when he refused to yield for Verstappen.
The most significant was at the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, where Verstappen forced Hamilton wide while defending the lead. Hamilton went wide to avoid the collision, as he felt Verstappen could and should have done to avoid what happened at the British Grand Prix.
Verstappen’s move went unpunished by the FIA and Mercedes appealed, unsuccessfully. That decision seemingly gave the blueprint for what is and isn’t allowed when racing at this weekend’s final race, although Verstappen was given a five-second penalty for the similar incident at Saudi Arabia last weekend.
The intensity of the on-track battle has spilled over into the media quite often this year. At times over the past few months things have been downright ugly.
Hamilton has made no secret of what he thinks of Verstappen’s approach, saying last week that his rival thinks F1’s rules do not apply to him and that he is always racing “over the limit.” Verstappen can be prickly with the media on controversial subjects but has been fairly restrained over what he has said about Hamilton. He does not shy away from criticising F1’s stewards, however. Last week, he said the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was “not Formula One” and an example of what he feels is the sport’s over-regulated nature.
What’s notable about this championship fight is that Hamilton’s and Verstappen’s respective bosses, Wolff and Horner, have also locked horns on a number of occasions. The animosity between those two is very real and is on a much higher scale than any animosity that exists between Hamilton and Verstappen.
The shots the two have fired at each other have given some fantastic soundbites and headlines. Last year Wolff said Horner was a “windbag;” this year Horner said Wolff reminded him of a pantomime villain. Horner has also relished the opportunity to suggest, on numerous occasions, that Wolff “inherited” the dominant Mercedes team from Ross Brawn, who left his role as boss in 2013.
This frosty relationship was never clearer to see than in the days leading up to the Qatar Grand Prix, when Wolff and Horner sat together in an incredibly tense press conference and engaged each other in a war of words on a number of topics, with a couple of cheap shots thrown in along the way.
Horner has been especially good at ratcheting up the tension in the media but seemed to trip over himself while doing this at the end of the weekend when he earned himself a very public slap on the wrist from the FIA for suggesting a “rogue marshal” had waved a yellow flag Verstappen had not slowed down for in qualifying – Verstappen was handed a grid penalty as a result.
The scheduling of F1’s run-in undoubtedly ramped up the feud even further. This weekend’s event will be the fifth race (across three different continents) in six weeks. With races coming thick and fast lately it’s felt like a pressure-cooker, both teams have become further entrenched in opposing and unmoveable positions against the other.
What really has set this apart from so many other title fights is that Verstappen and Hamilton are level on points — the only time that happened previously between two title contenders was in 1974. It is almost unbelievable it is this closely matched after so many incidents and races.
However it goes, it seems perfectly poised for one final piece of drama in some way, shape or form.
There have been some legendary title fights in F1 which ended in dramatic circumstances. Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost collided twice to decide championships in 1989 and 1990, but both occurred at the penultimate round of those seasons. Schumacher collided with Damon Hill in 1994 and Jacques Villeneuve in 1997 to win and lose a championship respectively, while Hamilton beat Felipe Massa to the title by passing Timo Glock at the penultimate corner of the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix to win his first title.
But none of those had this title fight’s most obvious selling point — being winner-takes-all. On paper it is a remarkably simple premise but given how close they have been all year, and with the recent controversy about what the rules of racing are, inevitably there have been questions about whether this title fight will end with another collision between the pair.
It would be a shame for it to end that way but it seems a very real prospect given the events of the year. Although, assuming that will be the outcome also does a massive disservice to two drivers who have displayed incredible racing performances throughout the year and who are both in this position on merit.
As it has been for much of the year, it is impossible to call which way this will go.
However it ends, F1 will crown a worthy 2021 world champion on Sunday evening in Abu Dhabi — just how we get to that point remains to be seen.