Max Verstappen wins first World Drivers’ Championship

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Max Verstappen’s controversial win at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix sealed his first title.

  Lewis Hamilton had been dominant all night.

   From lap 1 to lap 57, the Mercedes driver had been leading his title rival, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. Verstappen’s pit stop for new hard tires failed to get the Dutchman anywhere close to Hamilton, who looked on course to win his fifth straight world championship.

   Then Nicholas Latifi crashed on lap 53. The Williams driver had been fighting for 15th place with Haas’ Mick Schumacher when he spun out at turn 14. A safety car came out, and for four laps Hamilton was in front. Many assumed the safety car would last until the end of the race, leaving Hamilton to claim his eighth World Drivers’ Championship. 

   Race director Michael Masi then made one of the stupidest decisions in FIA history, allowing five lapped cars to pass the safety car while the others could not. This was done so Hamilton and Verstappen could fight it out for the championship on the final lap. Verstappen, on new soft tires, breezed past Hamilton through the hairpin; Hamilton tried to move back after the next chicane but failed.

   Verstappen was now champion of the world. 

   Before addressing the controversy, let’s start by making something incredibly clear: Verstappen is a deserving world champion. At times this season he was utterly unstoppable, from his domination on the narrow streets of Monaco to his home victory  in Zandvoort. While Hamilton had similar stretches, especially his back-to-back-to-back wins to level the championship, Verstappen was more consistent.

   When he completed a race, the Dutchman finished off the podium only once (P9 in Hungary, in which he dragged a battered car home). It was an absolutely outstanding season for the 24-year-old, who joins Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, and Fernando Alonso as the only drivers to win the World Drivers’ Championship under age 25.

  Mercedes appealed the result of the race, claiming that Masi’s move to unlap those cars was unfair and directly handed Verstappen the championship. Their initial appeal to the FIA failed, and they weighed up appealing to the higher CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport) before deciding not to, following conversations with Hamilton. Hamilton, to his credit, took his loss in stride , with a classy post-race interview congratulating Verstappen.

   However, I don’t blame Toto Wolff and Mercedes for taking the loss as they did; what Masi did was clearly just for the cameras, reversing an FIA rule that had been used to keep the race order intact following Latifi’s crash. It’s the first time that’s ever been done in a Formula One race, and it just so happened to be in the title decider. It’s shameful, and brought a horrible end to a season that deserved to have a finish free of controversy.

   Verstappen and Hamilton gave us arguably the best season in Formula One history, where the title came down to the last race and races like Barcelona and Le Castellet became riveting affairs rather than boring slogs. We were given a shock winner in Hungary, a newly-competent second driver for Red Bull, and a chaos-filled Baku. There were six different winners, a McLaren 1-2 in Monza, and the emergence of the US as a F1 hotspot.

   The 2021 F1 season was one to remember, and its combination of a controversial ending and a new world champion will stay in the memory for years to come.