Max Verstappen is the new 2021 Formula 1 world champion by winning the race in an epic and yet controversial last lap with Lewis Hamilton following a late safety car.
The two title rivals came together on the opening lap, but it was the decision to allow a final lap shootout that gave Verstappen the chance to put a decisive pass on Hamilton, who had led most of the race but was unable to stop during a virtual safety car and the full safety car that followed Nicholas Latifi crashing during the closing laps.
At the start, Hamilton made a much better start to immediately shoot alongside Verstappen from second on the grid, with the Mercedes driver seizing the lead at the Turn 1 braking point despite a small lock-up on his left-front.
Hamilton scampered clear but Verstappen stayed close enough to close in slightly going down the long run to the Turns 6/7 chicane than splits Yas Marina’s two main straights.
The Red Bull driver sent a late lunge to Hamilton’s inside and got alongside by the apex, but went so deep to the outside of the track he ran half his car on the kerbs, with Hamilton going fully off and cutting behind Turn 7, rejoining to keep the lead.
To Red Bull’s fury, race director Michael Masi informed the team the stewards had reviewed the incident but decided no investigation was necessary.
This was because in their view Verstappen had forced the issue with Hamilton left no room to stay on track and that the leader had slowed down enough to lead by 1.1 seconds at the end of lap one of 58 to have given up any advantage he gained by cutting the corner.
With Red Bull informing the frustrated Verstappen that he would have to win the race and championship on track, Hamilton quickly edged clear and set a string of fastest laps through the opening 10 tours, running the more durable medium tyres to Verstappen’s softs.
His lead had reached 3.4 seconds by the end of lap ten, at which point Verstappen was already suggesting his rear tyres were starting to slide.
Three laps later, with Hamilton’s lead over five seconds for the first time, Red Bull called Verstappen in to go from the softs to the hards, rejoining in between the Ferrari cars of Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc, who went off through the plunging downhill right of Turn 3 in Verstappen’s wake.
Mercedes brought Hamilton in a lap later for his own set of hards, which meant Sergio Perez, who had been nearly 10s off the lead by the time Hamilton came in, cycling through to lead.
Hamilton carved into Perez’s advantage as Verstappen took several laps to pass Sainz, even going off at the penultimate corner as he chased the Ferrari hard, finally moving up to third with a DRS pass into Turn 6 on lap 18.
Over the next two laps it became clear Red Bull’s plan was for Perez to hold Hamilton up considerably to try and get Verstappen’s near eight-second deficit down.
On laps 20 and 21, the leading pair engaged in a thrilling fight, with Perez nipping back in front of Hamilton at Turn 6 after being passed with DRS on the outside, then when the Mercedes got ahead out of Turn 7 he used his own DRS activation to shoot back alongside and by through the Turn 8 kink and lead again into the new hairpin of Turn 9 at the end of the second straight.
Hamilton attacked at Turn 1 and was rebuffed by Perez, but then had another go with DRS into Turn 6, where he finally sealed his move back to first by cutting from the outside to inside to leave Perez nowhere to go.
Perez pitted at the end of lap 21 to take his own hards, his efforts to hold up Hamilton getting his teammate back to 1.7 seconds adrift.
But Hamilton was able to pull away again from his rival, his lead back to 4.2 seconds by the end of lap 30 – although he informed his team “it’s a long way to go [to the finish] on this set of tyres”.
That concern became of great importance six laps later when Verstappen was called for a second time to take a second set of hards, under a virtual safety car that had been activated when Antonio Giovinazzi’s last race for Alfa Romeo ended with a transmission problem and he pulled up at Turn 9’s exit.
Mercedes opted to retain track position and not take a cheaper pitstop, which set up a 20-lap chase to the finish with Verstappen on much fresher tyres and needing to close a 17s gap.
The Red Bull driver did immediately cut chunks from his rival’s advantage, but only in near half second chunks, which meant it still held at 13.9 seconds with 15 laps to go.
Verstappen continued to home in on Hamilton, with both having to get through a gaggle of backmarkers as the final ten laps approached.
But he still had to close an 11 seconds gap entering the final phase, with tensions raised by Lando Norris, who had dropped down from third at the start, falling out of fifth with a slow puncture – likely picked up on the new kerbs exiting Turns 5 and 9, which Hamilton was advised by Mercedes to avoid.
However, the race was altered dramatically when Latifi crashed exiting the Turn 14 left that leads out from underneath the hotel that straddles the final sector with six laps left – after the Williams had been battling Mick Schumacher through Turn 9 and gone after over the kerbs and then lost the rear of his car and slammed into the wall as he chased the Haas.
Red Bull brought Verstappen in for a third time to go to the softs, with Mercedes unable to bring Hamilton in as it would have meant sacrificing the lead.
The incident took almost the entire rest of the race to clear, which initially looked like it would benefit Hamilton as the lapped cars that had filtered between the leaders – Norris, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel – were not allowed to overtake the safety ahead of the restart.
But Masi reversed this call ahead of the final lap, with Hamilton backing up Verstappen considerably and then flooring it to try and bridge a gap.
He led on the last tour but Verstappen used his fresher rubber to stay close and then dive into a pass at the new Turn 5 left hairpin at the start of the middle sector and then weaving in defence on the straight down to Turn 6, where it had all kicked off over 90 minutes earlier.
Hamilton chased Verstappen on the run to Turn 9 but the Red Bull defend the inside and Hamilton had nowhere to go, sliding wide through the hairpin and coming home 2.2s as Verstappen took his first F1 world title.
Sainz ended up third as Perez was retired in the pits during the late safety car, with AlphaTauri pair Yuki Tsunoda and Pierre Gasly taking fourth and fifth ahead of Valtteri Bottas, who to work his way back up from a poor first lap – gaining when Norris suffered his puncture.
Norris took seventh ahead of Alonso and Ocon, with Leclerc rounding out the top ten, the second Ferrari losing ground after stopping during the VSC.
So a controversial end to this thrilling season. Mercedes and Hamilton felt robbed in losing the championship due to the safety car. Red Bull took advantage and Verstappen made the move on the final lap to seal the title. What a dramatic finale in a crazy championship. Congrats to Max Verstappen in becoming the 2021 champ.
Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, race results:
1 Max Verstappen Red Bull-Honda 1:30:17.345
2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes +2.256
3 Carlos Sainz Jr. Ferrari +5.173
4 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri-Honda +5.692
5 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri-Honda +6.531s
6 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes +7.463s
7 Lando Norris McLaren-Mercedes +59.200s
8 Fernando Alonso Alpine-Renault +61.708s
9 Esteban Ocon Alpine-Renault +64.026s
10 Charles Leclerc Ferrari +66.057s
11 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin-Mercedes +67.527s
12 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren-Mercedes +1 lap
13 Lance Stroll Aston Martin-Mercedes +1 lap
14 Mick Schumacher Haas-Ferrari +1 lap
15 Sergio Perez Red Bull-Honda DNF
– Nicholas Latifi Williams-Mercedes DNF
– Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo-Ferrari DNF
– George Russell Williams-Mercedes DNF
– Kimi Raikkonen Alfa Romeo-Ferrari DNF
– Nikita Mazepin Haas-Ferrari DNS