Even as Max Verstappen saw the chequered flag on the track to clinch his first Formula One championship, it felt as if the 24-year-old had won it in the stewards’ room. This, however, provided a fitting conclusion to a season that was as much about the sport’s internal politics as it was the actual racing.
It did a disservice to the standard set by Verstappen and seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton in 2021. Not for five years had F1 seen such a captivating title duel go down to the final race, but while Nico Rosberg’s 2016 triumph felt like a glitch, a one-off event, Verstappen’s title win could mark the start of a new era.
Long seen as a future world champion, everything came together for Verstappen. It became clear from early on in the 2021 season that the Dutchman, whose racing instincts had always been as sharp as anyone else’s in the paddock, had the car beneath him to take the fight to Mercedes.
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At times, Verstappen stretched the boundaries of what is acceptable racing, but that’s what the best in F1 do. That’s certainly what Hamilton did earlier in his career when his late braking and willingness to take the inside line shook up the sport. The rivalry might have crossed the line once or twice, but that was always likely to happen with both drivers pushing each other so hard.
Until the last lap of the season’s final race, Hamilton looked on course to win a record eighth world championship, a triumph that would have seen him surpass Michael Schumacher as the most successful driver in F1 history. Next year will present the 36-year-old, who not so long ago signed a contract to keep him at Mercedes until the end of 2021, with another chance to achieve history.
But Verstappen’s title victory, plus the looming regulation changes in F1, raise the prospect of a fundamental shift at the top of the sport. Just as the shift into the hybrid era saw Mercedes achieve a level of unparalleled dominance, might Red Bull and their fearless new world champion set the pace in the years to come?
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The last time Hamilton lost a world championship fight, he responded with four straight titles. Adversity often brings the best out of the Stevenage-born driver, so it would be foolish to count him out from adding more world championships to his haul. There will be plenty more moments of Hamilton brilliance to come.
Whether or not F1 can move on from the politicking and melodrama of 2021 is another matter. The way the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix unfolded, with regulations bent to produce one final moment of must-watch TV, only added to the sense that the sport is increasingly doing more to ensure entertainment over fair racing.
That, perhaps, is something that comes with the territory of being viewed through the prism of a Netflix docu-series, which has dramatically increased engagement in F1 in recent years. But how comfortable is the sport with being WWE on wheels? Are the plot lines more important than the sport itself?
Because while the stewards’ decisions, appeals, counter-appeals add friction between team principals, F1 merely provides a platform for its drivers to demonstrate their brilliance, and in Hamilton and Verstappen, the sport boasts two generational talents. 2021 might not be a one-off. There could very well be more of the same in 2022 because neither Hamilton nor Verstappen, to their strength and their weakness, know how to back down.
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