By Duru Akin
The long-awaited race in Abu Dhabi sure was a nerve-racking experience for all teams, drivers and fans – but most of all for Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton. Three main incidents shaped the course of the race, and the championship result with it.
The incident at turn seven is what started the ‘controversy’. It looked like Verstappen did not leave enough space for Hamilton and forced him off the track.
However, on second viewing, it is clear that Verstappen did not break any rules. He was on the inside and touched the apex, while Hamilton was on the outside and turned too close to his rival’s Red Bull, causing minor contact and having to go off track.
On top of this, Hamilton keeps a considerable gap from Verstappen after cutting the track and has the advantage. The stewards thought it was not necessary to start an investigation or give a penalty, as it was decided that Hamilton slowed down a bit and somewhat closed the gap.
Still, there was a significant gap, which led to Red Bull’s frustration. From Mercedes’ perspective, this could have been a strategy to set a ‘temporary barrier’ as Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas was behind and unable to guard him.
Red Bull made a poor choice from the beginning by giving Verstappen soft tyres. Just a few laps in, the hot climate and track had already damaged the Dutchman’s tyres. Mercedes made a better decision by starting Hamilton with hard tyres – he lead the race without any difficulties until the very end.
Red Bull might have aimed to start off faster and secure enough distance from Mercedes to call Verstappen to the pit and change to either medium or hard tyres later on in the race. Either way, with every lap the distance grew; Red Bull added to their struggle, while Mercedes didn’t have to worry.
Secondly, it was after Antonio Giovinazzi’s incident when Red Bull started to play the game to their advantage. Because Giovinazzi was a long way from the service road, a Virtual Safety Car (VSC) was necessary.
Pitting when there is a VSC or SC means no overtaking, the race is neutralised, and anyone can have a ‘cheat’ pit. As soon as the VSC was on, Verstappen pitted and changed to hard tyres.
This was a great strategy, as Red Bull benefited from the VSC and, most importantly, Hamilton decided not to pit. This meant that Hamilton decided to continue with twenty-three lap-old tyres, which was not ideal when Verstappen had brand new ones.
Hamilton could have changed his mind after Verstappen decided to box, as his place could not have been taken. It is difficult to figure out why Mercedes decided to go with this idea, especially because they addressed this situation hypothetically earlier on asking Hamilton: “If we were to stop under safety car would you prefer medium or hard.”
To sum up, Red Bull were back in the game after the VSC was over, as they saw that there still was a chance to make Verstappen the 2021 World Champion.
Thirdly, Nicholas Latifi’s accident toward the very end of the race further influenced its outcome. Although it is not the case for Latifi, for Verstappen, this was another incredible and beneficial turn of events.
As the safety car went on the track, Verstappen once again had the distance between him and Hamilton shortened. Toward the end of lap 57, the SC left and the last, and most intense, lap of the whole race began.
Not long after the SC left, Verstappen made an epic overtake and protected his position until the very end. Had it not been for Latifi’s crash, Verstappen might not have been able to get ahead of Hamilton.
At the end, there is a high chance that Verstappen ‘got lucky’ and would not have been able to get the championship title had it not been for the SCs, as some people argue. Nonetheless, this does not mean that Verstappen did not deserve the title or it is just a ‘lucky triumph’.
Both Hamilton and Verstappen are of World Champion standard. Either way the winner would be a worthy driver. This is the nature of racing: it is fast-paced, unpredictable and full of surprises.
Image: Automotive Rhythms via Flickr