Congratulations to Max Verstappen on winning the 2021 Formula One World Championship. Make no mistake, Max and Red Bull lifting the title is good for the sport following seven years of domination by Mercedes and (except for 2016) Lewis Hamilton. The battle between these two exceptional drivers throughout the season has by all accounts turbocharged the fortunes of Formula One. And with their directly opposed personalities reminiscent of the James Hunt and Niki Lauda duel in 1976, it has generated unprecedented coverage, social media comment and interest outside of the sport around the globe.
With both drivers deserving the title, it seemed wrong that it was settled in such a “made for TV” staged manner. And depending on whether you were on Team Max or Team Lewis, you’ll have your own view of whether it was either a travesty or righteous justice served. Mercedes attempts to overturn the result at the end of the race was always going to end up in a cul-de-sac and I suspect that further noises about it will recede very quickly - no one was going to re-stuff the confetti cannons after the world had been told Max was Champion.
Both drivers excelled over the weekend. If Verstappen’s pole time was inspired, then Lewis’s race more than matched it. The latter making a start that shouldn’t have been possible (Hamilton’s medium tires versus Verstappen's soft ), even Max seemed initially stunned for the first series of corners as Hamilton initially pulled away slightly. A controversial overtaking move by the young 24-year-old was then deemed illegal. And Hamilton, already in front courtesy of a shortcut across the run-off area when avoiding Verstappen's errant move, was allowed to retain the lead. The seven-time world champion then appeared to have everything under control despite a duel with Perez that produced the only real racing of the Grand Prix. That was, of course right up until Latifi found the wall with only six laps remaining in the race. The safety car duly deployed, Hamilton, and his worn tires, had no choice but to stay out and hold the position. Whereas Max had the opportunity to bolt on some new softs and have one last go. What followed could best be described as the footballing equivalent of the “Hand of God” as Race Director - Michael Massi appeared to apply regulations of lapped cars being able to un-lap themselves in part only. Either way, when the race restarted Max found himself right behind Hamilton and the result was pretty much ordained. Verstappen with his fresh tires then made the perfect pass at Turn 5 to take the lead. Hamilton tried to regain it again at Turn 9 but Verstappen fought him off and went on to win the race and the championship.
As much as all this may pain Lewis’ legion of fans, they should remember how he won his first championship in 2008. It was between him and Felipe Massa. Hamilton needed to finish in 5th place or higher to secure the title. With Felipe leading the Brazilian Grand Prix and Hamilton in 6th place, Massa was on target to take the Championship. On the last lap of the race, both Vettel (5th) and Hamilton made up an eighteen-second gap to pass a “strangely” slowing Timo Glock who was then lying in 4th. Massa having taken the chequered flag first was ecstatic in the cockpit of his car, sure of the fact that he’d done his job. But it was not to be. Hamilton had secured the required 5th place pretty much at the penultimate corner of the track. Massa was naturally inconsolable and never came close to lifting the elusive title again.
Despite the season being very much the Max and Lewis show, it is rich pickings for review subjects ranging from drivers, regulations, decisions, other personalities, and the direction the sport now seems to be heading in. The bones of which can and will be picked over later. For the moment though we should celebrate the achievements of Max Verstappen. Anyone who doubts his pedigree should check out his CV and digest what he has achieved – straight from F3 into F1 with the AlphaTauri Team (neé Toro Rosso). Barely a season and a half later he was promoted to the parent team - Red Bull Racing, replacing Daniil Kvyat. He holds the record as the youngest winner of a Grand Prix and this year he recorded more wins and pole positions than any other driver. The rest as they say, is history.
So, we close off the 2021 Championship with a new champion, and to understand what the end of a Formula One season should feel like, you could do a lot worse than to watch John Frankenheimer’s 1966 classic “Grand Prix”. The closing scene has Championship winner “Peter Arun” walking the circuit main straight, on his own, past an empty grandstand. Rubbish from the previous days' crowd is blowing past him as the camera gradually pulls up and away with the sound of the car engines revving, together with brass band victory music of the day. It was all about savouring that ephemeral moment, before moving forward to the next season - forgetting the “what if’s”, rancour, and losses of the past. Unfortunately, with the social media feeds I’ve seen in the past couple of days, I have a feeling that’s not going to happen… just yet.