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Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Mayhem, mischief and Masi: Abu Dhabi, two years on

As Formula 1 returns to Abu Dhabi, Kieran Jackson revisits the spectacle and the scandal of the sport’s most dramatic finale between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton

Friday 24 November 2023 14:00 GMT
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(Getty Images)

The stage was set.

Billed as the “Decider in the Desert”, the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was the final chapter in a Formula 1 season for the ages. Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton were battered and bruised – but still in the fight. Level quite astoundingly on 369.5 points after 21 races, it all came down to this.

Now, as F1 returns to Abu Dhabi for the first time since that thrilling and controversial finale last year, The Independent revisits the story of Sunday 12 December 2021 from the eyes of those at the Yas Marina Circuit and around the world as history played out in a conclusion nobody could have foreseen.

Max Verstappen stares at Lewis Hamilton prior to the winner-takes-all Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2021 (Getty)

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Raceday. The Orange Army came in their thousands to support Verstappen, chasing a debut crown, who put his Red Bull on pole position in qualifying on Saturday, 3/10ths quicker than his arch-rival. Alongside him on the front row: Hamilton, who was driving for a place in history and a record-breaking eighth world championship.

The 2021 season had seen collisions, crashes and mouthwatering moments of drama that had enthralled millions worldwide. From late loggerheads in Bahrain and a season-defining crash at Silverstone to the double retirement in Monza and toing and froing at Interlagos, the protagonists had been at each other’s throats on the track with their bosses – Christian Horner and Toto Wolff – following suit in the media pen.

Now, a week on from a frantic Saudi Arabian GP which saw Hamilton and Verstappen come together three times, it was time to face the music. Martin Brundle notes in commentary: “Something is going to happen in the next 58 laps. We’re just not sure what.”

Little did he know.

  • David Croft, Sky Sports lead commentator
  • Martin Brundle, Sky Sports co-commentator

Lights out. Hamilton steals a march on Verstappen from the off, searing past a slow Verstappen to take the lead into turn one. Horner puts his arms up in the air in befuddlement in the Red Bull garage, but his man is right back on Hamilton’s tail and in his slipstream heading down the first long straight.

Turn six. Verstappen – as so often was the case in 2021 – lunges instinctively down the inside of Hamilton’s Mercedes, slow to turn into the corner. They touch. Verstappen stays within the white lines; Hamilton cuts the corner and re-joins the racetrack still in the lead, with a larger lead to the Dutchman.

“He has to give that back!” exclaims Verstappen on his radio. Brundle agrees, calling it “clear cut”. Hamilton implores that Verstappen “pushed him off track”. Race director Michael Masi and the stewards at race control are involved for the first time. It won’t be the last.

Hamilton steals a march on Verstappen at lights out and takes the lead of the race (Getty)

Lap one ticks by. So does lap two. Still Hamilton remains more than a second ahead of Verstappen, with no word from race control. But as the Mercedes crosses the start-finish line to start his third lap, the news comes: no investigation necessary. The stewarding trio of Derek Warwick, Garry Connelly and Felix Holter have made their judgement.

Red Bull are incandescent.

  • Jonathan Wheatley, Red Bull sporting director
  • Michael Masi, F1 race director
  • Christian Horner, Red Bull team principal
  • Nico Rosberg, 2016 F1 world champion
  • Damon Hill, 1996 F1 world champion
  • Jenson Button, 2009 F1 world champion

Wheatley has his first jab at Masi: “Max is ahead at the apex. Stays on the track. Lewis has left the track…”

Masi, interrupting Wheatley, rebukes: “Jonathan, he’s forced him out there. That’s why we asked him to give back all the advantage. All the advantage was already given back prior to the first lap ending.”

Wheatley: “Not sure we agree but understood.” Masi: “No problems.”

It doesn’t take long for Verstappen’s blood to boil: “That is incredible! What are they doing here!”

Horner, speaking to Sky: “We’re a little bit shocked at that because, apparently, Lewis gave his advantage back which we fail to see yet so as you can imagine we’re not best pleased.

“It’s a total lack of consistency. We’re disappointed with it but focus on the race now and we’ve got to do it the hard way.”

“The race director made it very clear before the race you had to stay within the white lines. Max did that. Lewis gained an advantage by going off track. He didn’t concede it, he didn’t give anything back so that was our position. But anyway, we’ll focus on the race and still a long way to go.”

It wasn’t done there.

Wheatley: “Michael, we still don’t understand it. That was a hard, aggressive pass by Max but Max stayed fully on the track and he was ahead at the apex. He did everything right, stayed on the track. At some point, the second car has to back out.”

Masi is firm again in his rebuttal: “Jonathan, the stewards have reviewed it and determined that all the lasting advantage was gained and that Max forced that position there so they’ve said that they’ve reviewed it but are not investigating it.”

Michael Masi was involved for the first time on lap one – it would not be the last time (Sky Sports F1 )

Rosberg: “Oh my goodness, so difficult! I think it’s OK what they’ve done. Max was a bit too aggressive and forcing Lewis out too strongly, even though he had the right to the corner there because he was massively ahead.

“But then I would also say that Lewis didn’t give back everything he gained so it’s tough, but I think it’s OK like this.”

Hill: “Looking at it back you have to say Lewis had to move out the way because otherwise he’s going to collide with Max who made a very uncompromising and aggressive late lunge which left no room for Lewis to make any accommodation. He left the track.

“But I have to say, I am surprised that they didn’t say ‘give the place back’”.

Button: “It was a very late lunge, it was always going to happen, Lewis knew he was coming and he pushed Lewis off the track, I guess, but he stayed on the track.

“I’m struggling to understand the regulations right now because obviously in Brazil, there was no penalty but they both drove off the circuit, whereas Max stayed on the track this time.”

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As Hamilton’s lead builds, Red Bull blink first. Verstappen pits from softs to hards on lap 14 and comes out in fifth. Mercedes respond straight away by following suit for Hamilton, switching from his medium tyre to hards, and he re-joins the race in second place.

Now out in front is Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez, who a year ago had not even secured a seat for the 2021 season. Yet his role in helping Verstappen’s cause was now vital.

By lap 20, Hamilton is on Perez’s rear. Down the back straight, the pair switch positions before the Mercedes looks to steamroll away. Only, to the surprise of all watches, Perez surges back down the inside with DRS into turn nine to retake the lead – and stays ahead heading into lap 21.

Sergio Perez defends against Hamilton – with Verstappen creeping up in the background (Getty)

Verstappen, meanwhile, has closed the gap to Hamilton from eight seconds to just one second by the time they all hit the back straight once more. Perez has bought his teammate more than seven seconds – before eventually surrendering to the Mercedes.

  • Toto Wolff, Mercedes CEO

Wolff to race control: “Michael, it’s a bit dangerous can you warn them?

Masi: “So far they’re racing Toto, hard racing.”

Croft: “This is a very, very good tussle here, Perez absolutely on the limit and as close as he can be… Perez playing the ultimate team game here for Max Verstappen and this is really frustrating Lewis Hamilton, it’s going to be hurting his tyres too…

“But Hamilton does get past Perez but Perez has played the ultimate team game and he has really brought his team-mate back into play.”

Verstappen: “Ah, Checo is a legend.”

Brundle: “Well, it’s game on.”

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Hamilton, at the halfway stage of the race: “It’s a long way for these tyres.”

Foresight aplenty.

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Yet it wasn’t game on. The raw race pace of the Mercedes – which had guided Hamilton to three grand prix wins in a row before this race – was too much for Red Bull to handle. Even the retirement of Antonio Giovinazzi on lap 36, forcing a virtual safety car and Verstappen pitting for a fresh set of hard tyres, failed to see the Red Bull reduce a hefty deficit of more than 10 seconds.

  • Peter Bonnington, Lewis Hamilton’s race engineer

Wolff: “Michael, please, no safety car, it interferes in the race, please not.”

Despite the lead he had, Hamilton’s anxiety is palpable: “Are we going to be in trouble? Bit of risk leaving me out, no? I won’t be able to keep this pace up for the whole way.”

Bonnington: “Yeah risk of losing track position Lewis is too high.”

With 10 laps to go, it seemed done and dusted. Even on the Red Bull pit wall, hope seemed all but lost.

Horner, speaking to Sky: “The pace of the Mercedes is just too strong today. Max is just driving his heart out there but we’re going to need a miracle in these last 10 laps to turn it around. He’ll give it everything but the clock’s ticking.

“He’s got four cars to go through – he needs some luck from the racing gods in these last 10 laps. But we’re going to give it everything, as we have done all year, as Max has done all year. He’ll drive his heart out these 10 laps, you can guarantee that.”

Miracle. Clock’s ticking. Luck from the racing gods. It was done… surely?

The points-graphic with eight laps to go, showing Hamilton’s victory in the world championship (Sky Sports F1 )

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Lap 53/58. Hamilton’s lead to Verstappen is actually rising: it’s 12.116 seconds. Croft and Brundle seemed to have accepted the inevitable too. Talking about Silverstone and that season-defining crash – when Verstappen’s 33-point lead was cut to eight points – and Mercedes’ comeback in the constructors’ championship after an awful pre-season test…

Then, bang.

The yellow flash on the TV coverage is the first indicator. A second later, the sight of Nicholas Latifi’s Williams car sideways at turn 14, debris all over the track, greets a shocked worldwide audience. Safety car.

Game-changing.

Hamilton shakes his head as he is told, despairingly, not to pit while Verstappen lunges into the pits for the third time. This time, he has fresh soft tyres on his Red Bull. But there are now five lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen out on track.

Nicholas Latifi crashes and changes the complexion of the race in an instant (Sky Sports F1 )

Hamilton: “I can’t box?”

Bonnington: “Negative.”

Hamilton, referring to the situation as opposed to the team’s call, adds: “That’s unbelievable man.”

Brundle: “What jeopardy at the end of this grand prix, the end of this world championship! Will there be any more racing laps? If there are then Verstappen has got the tyres to really do something with them. Will they let the lapped runners through?”

Hamilton, disorientated at the scenario of the race, says: “What’s the situation behind me?”

Bonnington: “So situation is Verstappen has pitted, he had a free pit stop. We would’ve lost track position to him. Four laps remaining when you cross the line, so this field has to bunch and then they have to send lapped cars through. So it may not restart.”

Hamilton: “Is he right behind me?”

Bonnington: “He will be. Once they’ve sorted out all the order, this is going to take a while to sort out.”

Hamilton: “With new tyres?”

Bonnington: “Copy Lewis, we would have lost track position.”

Slowly but surely, the laps tick down. Three to go. And then comes the first message from race control: LAPPED CARS WILL NOT BE ALLOWED TO OVERTAKE.

The first message from race control: lapped cars will not be allowed to overtake (Sky Sports F1 )
  • Gianpiero Lambiase, Max Verstappen’s race engineer

Brundle: “It’s not mandatory in the regulations which leaves Verstappen with a lot of work to do then.”

Lambiase: “Lapped cars will not be allowed to overtake.”

Verstappen: “Yeah of course. Typical decision!”

Lambiase: “It’s classic!”

Verstappen: “I’m not surprised!”

Croft outlines the situation for the viewers: “We should get one lap of racing here. If we did allow the lapped cars to overtake, we’d have no laps of racing to the chequered flag. So what do Red Bull want? Do they want the chance or do they want to finish behind the safety car with no overtaking?”

Brundle agrees. Red Bull, however, do not.

Horner to Masi: “Why aren’t we getting these lapped cars out the way?

Masi: “Because Christian… just give me a second. OK. My main one is to get this incident clear.”

Horner: “You only need one racing lap.”

Wheatley gets even further to the point: “Obviously those lapped cars, you don’t need to let them go right away round and catch up with the back of the pack. You need to let them go and then we’ve got a motor race on our hands.”

Masi: “Understood.”

Two laps to go. The expectation is that we have one racing lap left, with lapped cars in between Hamilton and Verstappen, or all eight lapped cars are allowed through and we finish behind the safety car. It is only halfway round lap 57 of 58 that the complexion of the entire evening – and season – flips quicker than everyone involved can understand and stomach.

A second message flashes up from race control: LAPPED CARS 4 (NORRIS) – 14 – 31- 16 – 5 TO OVERTAKE SAFETY CAR. Seconds later, the top-left panel flips from ‘INCIDENT’ to ‘ASTON MARTIN SAFETY CAR, ENDING.’

A three-part story: a new lapped cars procedure, the safety car comes in to the pits and Mercedes are on the line to race control (Sky Sports F1 )

Brundle: “And it’s ending, and it’s ending – wow!”

Wolff to Masi: “Michael! Michael this isn’t right!”

Lambiase to Verstappen: “This is it, this is it.”

Suddenly out of nowhere, out of nothing, Verstappen has his most precious of lifelines. Suddenly the Red Bull on three-lap old soft tyres is harrying the Mercedes on 42-lap old hard tyres as the safety car makes its way into the pits. Suddenly, game changed.

  • Ron Meadows, Mercedes sporting director

Croft: “We’re going to have one lap of racing to decide the championship in 2021!”

Spotting Verstappen on the brink of overtaking Hamilton, Meadows to Masi: “He overtook under safety car!”

Hamilton breaks away with three corners to go. Verstappen could hardly be closer to the rear of his Mercedes. The camera angle flips to the main grandstand as the pair get racing again. One lap to go.

It’s mayhem. Wolff can hardly bear to watch. Horner is screaming “Come on Max!” A huddle has formed in the Red Bull garage. The moment is now. Verstappen, now with superior speed and grip, makes his move early. Turn five, he dives down the inside….

Croft: “Is Verstappen far enough back, he’s going to make the lunge down the inside! Hamilton sees his coming, it’s a late lunge by Verstappen – who takes the lead of the race! Verstappen now snatches the championship trophy from Lewis Hamilton, who’s trying to fight back!”

Wolff: “No Michael! No, no Michael, that was so not right!”

Bedlam in the Red Bull garage. Their man is ahead. He’s done it. Or has he? Down into turn nine, despite the resources against him, Hamilton is right in the slipstream of Verstappen – and moves to the outside. The pair are side-by-side at this most dramatic of moments, but the Dutchman holds his own and steams away. From then on, it’s a cakewalk to the line.

Hamilton: “This has been manipulated, man!”

Verstappen surges across the chequered flag, while Hamilton has already slowed in an absolute state of shock.

Verstappen takes the chequered flag ahead of Hamilton (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Croft: “Mercedes not happy. Red Bull will be delighted. They have shared a brilliant championship battle… but the championship can only be won by one.

“And it’s going Dutch in 2021! Max Verstappen, for the first time ever, is champion of the world!”

David Croft, speaking to The Independent:

Croft: “You have to recognise that moment. Here we have a first-time world champion. Where my line came from? I don’t know where that came from!”

Q: “It wasn’t pre-planned?!”

Croft: “No! Not at all! Not in any way shape or form. I’ll show you my notes one day and there’s no pre-planned lines in any of them. You call it as it is and I’m in the moment because that’s the job of the narrator. To be in that moment, to bring the audience into that moment and to help them understand that moment.

“I don’t plan my lines, I’m quite happy that amid all the bedlam I managed to come up with something that people seemed to like!

“Sky won a Bafta for that programme which was an incredible honour to be recognised by Bafta for what we did. All I know is that for all the controversy and drama Abu Dhabi threw our way, one thing people tell me – and I hope they’re not lying – is that they thoroughly enjoyed the contribution Martin and I made to that occasion. What an occasion it was and what a privilege to be there commentating as it happened.”

Red Bull engineers cover the pit lane in jubilation. The Orange Army erupts into a sea of noise. At Mercedes, the rawness of the loss is near-impossible to digest.

Lambiase: “Oh my lord Max! You are the world champion!”

Verstappen: “Yessss! Oh my word! Yesss!

Horner: “Max Verstappen, you are the world champion! The world champion!”

Wolff: “Michael… what was that?!”

Brundle: “You couldn’t make it up, could you?! There is going to be so much acrimony going forward now about that procedure at the end!”

The TV graphic after the chequered flag: Max Verstappen is world champion (Sky Sports F1 )

Bonnington: “I’m speechless Lewis, absolutely speechless.”

Red Bull, Verstappen and Horner needed a miracle. Boy, did they get it. Mercedes remain in disbelief. Hamilton’s silence tells the story.

Wolff: “Michael this is Toto. You need to reinstate the lap before, that’s not right!”

Masi: “Toto, it’s called a motor race.”

Wolff: “Sorry?”

Masi: “We went car racing.”

THE MOMENT

Croft: “I don’t think I’ll ever get to commentate on a lap like the last lap in Abu Dhabi again. If I do, I’m doubly lucky! Frankly that’s a moment which comes once in a generation. How can it be that the world championship is decided on the last lap of the last race, after so many thousands of miles throughout the season.

“If you sent it to a Hollywood producer, he’d send the script back and say ‘thank you very much, there’s no reality these days’. No one could have believed that would happen. It was a commentary moment which will live long in my memory.

“A sporting moment which will live in everyone’s memory. People are still living it, debating it and discussing it.”

Alex Albon, Red Bull test driver, dropped from his race seat for Perez at the end of the 2020 season: “It wasn’t an odd feeling seeing Max win the world championship, a predictable feeling to be honest.

“When 2021 started, I spent a lot of time on the simulator pretty much straight away after I got dropped to help the guys. So to see it come forward and improve in winter testing and see the positive comments from Max and Checo, it was equally frustrating because there were issues with the 2020 car and I’d have loved to have driven this one! But at the same time I was doing a good job and actually helping the team and feeling like I was very much part of it.

“So when I did see Max cross the line and win the championship, I felt very happy because it felt like I played a role – maybe very small – in the championship so it was quite a nice thing.”

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The immediate aftermath comes in two stages. The first comes in Verstappen and Red Bull’s elation – a state of elation that only comes when the manner of victory is so unfathomably dramatic and late in the day – juxtaposed with Hamilton and Mercedes’ incredulity, despite claiming an eighth-straight constructors’ crown.

Yet the second stage is abrupt: the Silver Arrows’ shock turns to anger as the post-race interviews are conducted and Hamilton, most sportingly, shakes Verstappen’s hand.

  • Ted Kravitz, Sky Sports pit lane reporter

Kravitz: “The feeling at Mercedes seems to be… hang on? There seems to be an abuse of the rules here. The rules have not been followed. Why were only five cars allowed to unlap themselves and then the race restarted? That’s the point isn’t it…”

Mercedes’ grievances are clear-cut, unlike Masi’s starting procedure. This is not done yet...

A dream fulfilled for Verstappen and his father, Jos (Getty)
Toto Wolff is in a state of shock in the Mercedes garage (Sky Sports F1 )

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Armed with lawyer Paul Harris QC – in Abu Dhabi just for this sort of scenario – Mercedes protest the result, which is rejected. Over the days that follow, the team opt not to go down the legal route further. The moment has been missed, the championship has gone.

Lewis Hamilton did not fulfil his usual post-race media duties. In fact, he went off-grid for two months, deleting everyone he followed on his Instagram page, plunging his future in the sport into doubt. Wolff said in the days after Abu Dhabi that Hamilton was “disillusioned and robbed”, adding that the late-race drama “still felt like a nightmare”.

Three months on, days before the 2022 season opener in Bahrain, the FIA release a seven-page report on the controversial finale to the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. It concluded that Masi – by this point dismissed as race director – failed to comply with the regulations by immediately bringing in the safety car after ordering lapped cars to unlap themselves.

THE FALLOUT

George Russell: “THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE!!!! Max is an absolutely fantastic driver who has had an incredible season and I have nothing but huge respect for him, but what just happened is absolutely unacceptable. I cannot believe what we’ve just seen.”

Croft: “We knew there was going to be a fallout. We knew Michael Masi had made a mistake. Obviously, there was going to be an awful lot talked about and said. But that moment when Max crosses the line… you can’t make reference to the controversy.

“Because as unpalatable it might be to a lot of fans of Lewis Hamilton, Max wasn’t an undeserving world champion. He won more races. It wasn’t his fault that Michael Masi made the errors that he did.

Brundle: “We saw how well Lewis and his dad handled it straight after the disappointment in Abu Dhabi and I can understand why he went on the missing list for a while on social media.

“I don’t think there’s an asterisk against Max’s Championship. The C’Ship was over 22 races, it was really unfortunate what happened in the end. It was really sad. It upset a lot of people, not just Lewis fans.

“Mistakes were made on the day, I don’t see malice. We’re in a new situation with F1, there’s a lot of moving parts to that story, it’s very complex how that happened.

“I wished it hadn’t had happened for Formula One and for Michael. He learned under Charlie [Whiting, former race director]. He fundamentally did a good job under 50 circumstances. I wished we didn’t find ourselves in this position because ideally you need somebody who’s feared and revered in equal measure controlling a super competitive group of drivers and team managers. It’s too big a job for one person.”

Hill: “Lewis has been very stoic in 2022. I know it must have been unbelievably hard to swallow what happened last year in Abu Dhabi. But he’s come back and he’s got on us with his job. Given what happened, I think he’s been brilliant quite frankly.”

The governing body added that “human error” was the basis behind why only five of the eight lapped cars were allowed to pass the safety car. There would now be two race directors overseeing the season, as opposed to one. The wildly excessive negotiating from teams to race control over the airwaves – such a feature of the 2021 campaign – was discontinued.

Most conclusively though, there was no basis for the race result and Verstappen’s championship to change hands. The chapter is closed.

But as F1 returns to Abu Dhabi this year, nearly 12 months on from the sport’s most dramatic moment watched worldwide by an estimated 108.7 million people and with clips from the stands of Verstappen’s last-lap overtake registering over a million views, questions surrounding the FIA’s management of races continue to linger.

Pierre Gasly’s close-shave in Japan with a tractor was the most severe. The drawn-out cost-cap saga was a terrible look for the sport – with Verstappen’s title still technically in danger 10 months on from crossing the line first in Abu Dhabi. For all the excitement and pulsation of that finale, the sporting product remains under fire. Formula 1 has a long way to go yet as it returns to Yas Marina: home to the sport’s most memorable spectacle. And scandal.

Verstappen emerged victorious in a finale to beat all finales before it (Getty)

Originally published on 18 November 2022

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