Max Verstappen wins F1 world title after dramatic Abu Dhabi Grand Prix victory

Verstappen earned the first world title of his career after the Red Bull driver saw off the challenge of Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton at the end of a compelling season

Jamie Braidwood
Sunday 12 December 2021 20:25 GMT
Verstappen wants to race with Red Bull for 'rest of his life' after dramatic world title win

Max Verstappen has defeated rival Lewis Hamilton in a thrilling and scarcely believable Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to win his first Formula One championship and emerge victorious in one of the greatest seasons and title battles in the history of the sport.

On only one other occasion in Formula One history had two drivers entered the last race of the season level on points – and if that wasn’t good enough, Nicholas Latifi’s late crash and the safety car that followed set up a one-lap, winner-takes-all sprint to the line.

Verstappen, who pitted for a fresh set of soft tyres, was able to position himself behind Hamilton after five cars were allowed by race director Michael Masi to unlap themselves under the safety car - a decision that was subject to an unsuccessful post-race appeal from Mercedes.

Hamilton, who was moments away from winning a record-breaking eighth Formula One title and completing a remarkable championship comeback, was a sitting duck, and Verstappen pulled off the vital move down the inside of the 36-year-old, in a typical display of bold and aggressive driving which has fuelled his title charge.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Verstappen. “I tried fighting all race, and then that opportunity in the last lap... It’s insane. I don’t know what to say. My team, they deserve it, I love them so much. This year has been incredible.”

There can be no argument that Verstappen has been the dominant driver throughout the season, as illustrated by his 10 pole positions and 10 race wins, but the debate over the decision to turn the season-deciding race into a one-lap fight for the line will be long-lasting.

Although Hamilton made a late comeback thanks to three consecutive victories in Brazil, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the Dutchman delivered the lap of his life at the Yas Marina Circuit to seal a vital victory when he needed it most, and take his place amongst the F1 greats in unbelievable style.

For a season of the highest drama, it was only fitting that the final chapter of the campaign should end with ratcheting levels of tension, as Verstappen made a late pit stop in an attempt to hunt Hamilton down and a safety car with four laps of the race remaining threw further chaos into the mix.

Lewis Hamilton congratulates title rival Max Verstappen
Lewis Hamilton congratulates title rival Max Verstappen (Getty Images)

Elsewhere in Abu Dhabi, moments of controversy, hostility over the team radio and wheel-to-wheel battles between the title rivals, added enthralling drama to a season which has had it all.

Until his late pit stops, Verstappen had no answer to the pace of Hamilton and his Mercedes for much of the race. Until then, it looked like Verstappen, who many would argue has been the most impressive driver of the season, would fall narrowly short of winning his maiden F1 title and he would be left rueing an incident early in the race in which the Red Bull driver was denied the lead in the opening lap.

Following a typically uncompromising move down the inside of his rival, Hamilton benefitted from running wide as he cut the corner, as well as the decision from the stewards not to intervene. Remarkably, it was not even close to being the most notable incident of the day.

Hamilton and Verstappen, separated by age but aligned by supreme driving talent, arrived at the Yas Marina Circuit level on points, a situation many considered unthinkable just a few weeks ago. Hamilton’s championship hopes were hanging by a thread after Verstappen claimed victory at the Mexican Grand Prix last month, leaving him 19 points adrift in the standings.

But Hamilton reeled off three wins in a row, including a sensational comeback at the Brazilian Grand Prix and a chaotic battle in Saudi Arabia, to move level on points with Verstappen and set up a winner-takes-all decider. Controversy aside, it looked as if Hamilton’s drive to make it four was as commanding of any of his illustrious career in the sport.

Controversy, however, has been one of the central components of the season, and it played a decisive part here. Further flash points between the championship protagonists – Hamilton and Verstappen, Mercedes and Red Bull – had been expected. Both drivers had been warned before the race that “unsportsmanlike” incidents could be punished by points penalties amid fears that the championship could be settled by a further incident.

Verstappen takes his first world championship after leading for most of the season
Verstappen takes his first world championship after leading for most of the season (Getty Images)

It took just seven corners for Hamilton and Verstappen to come into contact. The Dutchman claimed an impressive and potentially vital pole position with a stunning lap in Saturday’s qualifying session, but in a dramatic twist during Q2, a rare error from the 24-year-old saw him suffer a flat-spot on his medium set of tyres, forcing Red Bull into changing their starting hand.

Starting on the faster softs was believed to have handed Verstappen the advantage on the run down to the opening corner, but the Red Bull was instead sluggish off the line and could only watch as Hamilton launched into an early lead. In an attempt to win the place back, Verstappen made a typically bold and aggressive late lunge into the inside of the Turn 7 apex, touching Hamilton’s wheel and pushing the Mercedes off the track.

Hamilton continued on his path, cutting the corner and rejoining the road in the lead, sparking fury from the Red Bull pit lane. “He has to give that back,” Verstappen argued, but the stewards declined to intervene. “That is incredible – what are they doing here?!”

Hamilton holding on to the advantage was a further blow to Red Bull, who knew that the Mercedes would have the edge over the long run on his medium tyres. Verstappen soon began to complain that his rears were struggling, while Hamilton pushed the pace out in front, consistently clocking fast laps and building a lead of five seconds over his title rival.

It triggered an early trip to the pits from Verstappen, changing onto hard tyres after only a quarter of the race in what was designed to be a one-stop strategy. Mercedes responded immediately, bringing Hamilton in to replicate the Red Bull move. Hamilton emerged in P2, behind Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez, while the Dutchman dropped behind the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz Jr in P4.

Verstappen is mobbed by his Red Bull team after crossing the line
Verstappen is mobbed by his Red Bull team after crossing the line (Getty Images)

Verstappen’s move on Sainz was swift but Perez defended with all his might in an astonishing battle with Hamilton that reinvigorated the race and his teammate’s hopes. Hamilton made the initial move to pass Perez but the Mexican opened his DRS to bite back on the following straight, before holding the Mercedes at bay as they swerved and ducked in a thrilling dance of hard but fair driving.

Mercedes argued it was dangerous from Perez, but Hamilton eventually fought his way past, although it did come at a price. It cost Hamilton six seconds, as well as additional wear to his tyres, and brought Verstappen back into the race. “Checo is a legend,” the Dutchman said, in acknowledgement of an ultimate wing-man performance.

How Hamilton must have wished he had the same. Valtteri Bottas, in his final race for Mercedes, toiled behind, a non-factor in the title battle. It was not the only disappointing conclusion of the day. Kimi Raikkonen’s legendary career came to a close with a crash into the wall, while George Russell limped back to the pits as he lost power on his final outing with Williams.

Antonio Giovinazzi, on his final race with Alfa Romeo, was another casualty – but his retirement had a severe impact on the race. It resulted in another moment of controversy: a virtual safety car that allowed Verstappen a free pit stop to change into a fresh set of hard tyres with 20 laps of the race remaining.

It set up a thrilling conclusion, with the roles of the hunter and the hunted set. Verstappen had 17 seconds to claw back – Hamilton said it was a “risk” to leave him out after not stopping since lap 15. From a comfortable position, Mercedes became shrouded in doubt.

Latifi’s crash with four laps to go left Mercedes stuck in a state of inertia. Verstappen returned to the pits for softs and positioned himself behind Hamilton as the green flag waved, the start of 90 seconds of drama and chaos that settled a year-long battle for the championship.

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