The notion of a “tainted title” is something which has infected sporting discourse with increasing frequency in the past couple of years. The phrase is thrown around by fans online in a fashion akin to the way “fake news” is used, a catch-all term used by people who see themselves as on the losing side, as the oppressed, to rail against something which they disagree with.
When Liverpool won the Premier League title in 2019/20 after the football calendar had been postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, some supporters of other football teams used the label to try and suggest that the Reds’ win was somehow undeserved. The reality though, was that they simply did not like it.
Now Max Verstappen and Red Bull Racing are being met with same accusations of contaminated success, because of the controversial and unprecedented way in which FIA race director Michael Masi oversaw the late safety car restart at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix which pretty much guaranteed the Dutchman the win and thus victory over Lewis Hamilton in the race for the Formula 1 world championship.
It was a farcical way to finish a season which was among the most sensational in the history of motor sport. Verstappen and Hamilton had dragged each other up to an immaculate level of performance that combined excellent race-craft with furious speed and captivated millions around the world.
The Masi decision leaves a bitter taste, certainly, but Verstappen and Red Bull cannot be blamed. The pain and “disillusionment” Mercedes are feeling is not their fault, and the Silver Arrows said as much in the statement they released after deciding to drop their court appeal.
Verstappen’s maiden F1 title is not tainted, and was long in the making. Throughout 2021 he was the faster driver and could have had the title sown up far earlier if he had at times driven smarter, more cautiously even, and if unfortunate race-ruining incidents in Azerbaijan and Hungary had not befallen him.
It is important to remember the longer story of how Verstappen became champion, before the chaos at Yas Marina, and these are some of the most crucial moments which led him there.
Verstappen led the championship by five points after five races when Formula 1 headed to Baku in early June, and despite qualifying behind Charles Leclerc and Lewis Hamilton, the Dutchman used an overcut strategy at the first round of pit stops to take the lead.
He drove a comfortable race for 32 more laps before, on the long put straight where cars reach speed approach 230 mph, Verstappen’s left rear tyre and failed exploded, launching him into the wall on the right-hand side.
With the championship leader out, the race was red-flagged and restarted for two final laps with Sergio Perez’s sister Red Bull on pole and Hamilton in second. The seven-time world champion tried to slide down the inside of the Mexican into Turn 1 but locked his brakes and overshot the corner, dropping to the back of the pack and taking the same tally of zero points as Verstappen.
Had Hamilton made the move work, or even just consolidated second place, the championship could taken on an entirely different outlook.
After qualifying on pole position at the French Grand Prix one race later, where overtaking can be difficult, Verstappen went mis-judged a back-end slide into Turn 2 and took to the run-off area under pressure from Hamilton, who was able to capitalise and take the lead.
The 24-year-old kept pace with the Mercedes, though, and made a two-stop strategy work to perfection. With Hamilton taking hard tyres to the end, Red Bull made the call to pit Verstappen for a second set of mediums with 20 laps remaining and he nailed his laptimes from there on in to first overtake Valtteri Bottas and then took the inside line at the end of the DRS straight to pass Hamilton for the win on lap 52 of 53.
A perfect combination of pace, tactics and recovery to secure a tremendously important win and increase his advantage in the championship.
Esteban Ocon’s inaugural victory at Hungary in August was helped enormously by support from team-mate Fernando Alonso, but the Spaniard also benefitted Max Verstappen significantly at the end of a chaotic race in Budapest.
Bottas had caused carnage into Turn 1 by locking his brakes and taking out Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris, while Verstappen himself suffered significant damage to the sidepods and underbody after the Finn sent Norris’ McLaren skittling into the Red Bull.
After a red flag and drying track led to a bizarre re-start where every driver except Hamilton dove into the pits for dry tyres rather than lining up on the grid, the Briton dropped to the back of the field and has to make his way through the pack as he chased down the win.
He caught fourth-placed Alonso, whose team-mate Ocon had taken advantage of the carnage to lead from Sebastian Vettel in the Aston Martin, and was met with one of the most skilled periods of defensive driving the sport has ever seen as the Spaniard did everything he could to prevent Hamilton from catching Ocon.
Alonso placed his car perfectly into every corner and slowed down when Hamilton was forced to follow in order to allow Ocon to build up a buffer, and by the time the Mercedes was able to make the pass with laps remaining it was too late. Hamilton could not catch Ocon, Vettel or Carlos Sainz and finished fourth.
On a day when Bottas’ error had inadvertently cost Verstappen big, Alonso’s masterclass meant Hamilton could not take full advantage.
Verstappen took a slew of engine penalties and started at the back of the grid in Sochi, where Lando Norris started on pole position for the first time in his career and looked set to take the win until chaos was unleashed by a late deluge.
Under pressure from Hamilton, Norris elected to stay out on dry tyres rather than pit for intermediates, while Hamilton did the opposite. The 22-year-old was ultimately proven wrong as he slid off the circuit and out of the points, gifting victory to the number 44 car.
From the back, meanwhile, Verstappen had risen to sixth by the rain came, and he and Red Bull timed the switch to intermediates to perfection to come home behind Hamilton in second place.
Damage limitation was the goal and the end result was far beyond anything Red Bull would have believed possible even a few laps from the end.
Red Bull had been expected to have the faster car in Mexico but a qualifying cock-up between Yuki Tsunoda and Perez meant Verstappen was unable to finish a final fast lap at the end of Q3, and Mercedes locked out the front row with Bottas on pole and Hamilton behind.
Despite a plan to defend from Verstappen into Turn 1, Bottas failed to block the Dutchman’s path well enough and while the Mercedes cars squabbled on the long way down to the first corner, he was able to position his car on the racing line.
With the cars three abreast as they reached the braking zone, Verstappen was bravest as he hung the car around the outside and passed both cars to take the lead.
From there he drove a strong race and took a comfortable victory, dealing a significant blow to Mercedes who held all the cards before lights went out.
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