In the weekend just gone, we watched the crowning of a World Champion in the UAE, on the final day of a truly epic season.
We start as we always do, in Q1, on a track which has undergone alterations for the first time since its introduction in 2009. It would be safe to assume that this new layout would have potentially caught out some of the drivers to allow for some shock exits in the first session, however, this was not the case, with both Haas’ ending up rock bottom, in P19 and P20 (as Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin respectively), the 12th time this season the team have filled the back row of the grid in qualifying. For his final Qualifying in the sport, Kimi Raikkonen could only muster P18 in his Alpha Romero, behind both Williams of Nicholas Latifi and George Russell (P16 and P17 respectively), with the latter set to move to Mercedes ahead of the 2022 season.
Moving into Q2, we saw most teams attempt to set lap times on the medium tyres, hoping to start on the more durable tyre for the race, with both Mercedes setting strong times which saw them through to the Top 10 shootout. Typically, both Red Bulls would join them on the same tyre, however, Max Verstappen locked up going into Turn 1, and was unwilling to start the race on damaged tyres, so had to set a faster lap on the Softs. Those to miss out on the fight for Pole were Sebastian Vettel (Aston Martin) in P15, behind Alpha Romero’s departing Antonio Giovinazzi in P14. Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll claimed P13, with Alpha Tauri’s Pierre Gasly only able to take P12, his joint lowest qualifying result of the season (matching results from Russia, Britain, Austria and Spain). Alpine’s Fernando Alonso was the last man to be eliminated in Q2 (P11), missing out on Q3 by 0.012 seconds.
Q3 saw the return to the Softs and saw both Sergio Perez of Red Bull give Max a tow the whole way down the double back straights, allowing the Dutchman to claim Provisional Pole by over 4 tenths of a second to Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes. Perez, after his first flying lap, found himself sat in P3, ahead of the other Mercedes of Valterri Bottas (P4).
The back end of the Top 10 began with McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo in P10, around 0.02s behind Alpine’s Esteban Ocon. Yuki Tsunoda in his Alpha Tauri claimed P8, behind the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc. Bottas only fell after the final runs, dropping to P6, behind Carlos Sainz of Ferrari (P5), and even McLaren’s Lando Norris, who claimed a shock P3. Perez dropped to P4, and Hamilton was unable to beat Verstappen’s initial time, remaining in P2, meaning Verstappen claimed his first Pole Position since the USA GP.
Ahead of the race on Sunday, news broke over Mazepin, as Haas had announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19, meaning he would be unable to take part in the race, dropping the number of drivers to 19.
Just the Mercs and Tsunoda were able to qualify on the Mediums for the Top 10, with the rest on the Softs, and the majority of those sat outside the points paying positions were on the Mediums, with Schumacher opting for the Softs, with Gasly, and Alonso starting on the Hards.
As the five lights go out and the race begins, Hamilton gets a perfect getaway, pulling ahead of Verstappen instantly, and remains ahead by Turn 1, with Perez able to go down the inside of Norris at the sweeping left-hander for P3. Further back, Bottas was unable to pass Sainz, and loses a place to Leclerc through the twists of Sector 1. At Turn 5, Bottas drops behind Tsunoda.
It takes until just Turn 6 for the first moment of controversy to arise, as Verstappen attempted to dive down the inside of Hamilton, and is just able to remain on track, but the Mercedes is forced to take the escape road in order to avoid a collision. In doing this, Hamilton is able to keep extend his lead to around a second, with the incident not being investigated by the stewards. Behind, Norris loses a place to Sainz down the first back straight.
The next bit of action comes on Lap 7, as Vettel is able to pass Stroll, and Red Bull continue to ask Race Director, Michael Masi, why Hamilton was allowed to keep the position. By the next lap Jos Verstappen, Max’s father, and himself an ex-F1 driver, exits the back of the Red Bull garage, unable to handle watching his son’s first World Championship slip away.
By Lap 12, Hamilton, as well as both Red Bulls, and formed a gap of over 20 seconds to Sainz. On the following lap, Schumacher is the first to pit from the Softs, putting on a set of the Hard compound of tyre. Verstappen comes into the pits on Lap 14, putting on the Hards, returning to the track ahead of Leclerc, who seemed to be surprised to see the Red Bull, and loses a place to Tsunoda, before passing the Alpha Tauri using DRS down the second back straight, into Turn 9. Verstappen quickly gets past Norris down the first back straight and begins to push on towards Sainz.
Mercedes quickly responded by pitting Hamilton onto the Hards on the following lap, putting him behind Perez, who is being left out to back the Mercedes into his teammate. On Lap 16, both Ocon and Leclerc pit as Perez receives a radio call, confirming that he will be used to slow Hamilton down. On Lap 18, Verstappen passes Sainz going into Turn 6, giving him a clear sight to Hamilton.
It takes until just Lap 20 for Hamilton to catch Perez, looking to pass the Red Bull on the first back straight, towards Turn 6. Hamilton does pass the Mexican, but Checo holds the inside line, and is able to stay momentarily ahead, but loses the position after Hamilton is able to get much better traction out of the chicane and looks to have made the move stick. Despite this, Perez gets DRS down the second back straight and is able to breeze past the Mercedes towards the banked Turn 9, holding the lead for another lap.
Getting onto Lap 21, Hamilton goes side by side with the Red Bull down the main straight and attempts to go around the outside of Turn 1, however, again, is unable to make the move stick. This has led to Hamilton’s 8.5 seconds gap to Verstappen evaporate to just over a second. Hamilton is able to pass Perez going into Turn 6, and the Red Bull lets his teammate pass going into Turn 9.
After playing his role to perfection, Perez is brought into the pits. Despite Perez becoming the proclaimed Minister of Defence for Mexico. Hamilton was able to put a gap between himself and his Championship rival of 2.5 seconds by Lap 24. Tsunoda was able to pit onto the Hards on this lap, returning to the track in P10. On Lap 26, hearts were broken around the world, as Raikkonen spins into the wall, breaking his front wing, and is forced to retire with a brake failure.
On Lap 28, Russell, on his final race for Williams was forced to retire with a drive problem, and the man he will be replacing in 2022, Bottas, pits on Lap 31. The Mercedes man is able to pick off Leclerc for P8 on Lap 35, and on the next lap, Alpha Romero sees Giovinazzi pull off the side of the track at Turn 9, following a gearbox issue, with the Italian also retiring from potentially his final race in the sport. This brought out the VSC. Hamilton stays out, as Red Bull take the initiative, pitting Verstappen and Perez for fresh Hards. As the cars trundle around the track, Mercedes boss, Toto Wolff, was on the radio to Masi, almost begging him to not bring out the full Safety Car.
In the end, the VCS is all that was required, as, by Lap 38/58, the race is back underway. Verstappen is told he needs to be lapping 8 tenths of a second faster than Hamilton, a feat which the Dutchman was unable to match, seen as by Lap 43, the gap was still 14 seconds.
The results seemed inevitable, with Hamilton remaining far ahead of Verstappen when entering the final 10 laps of the race. The first bit of drama comes on Lap 50, as Norris is forced to pit due to a slow puncture, forcing him to put on a set of Mediums, and pushes him to the bottom end of the points, however, the most important drama came when Latifi hit the wall at Turn 14 on Lap 53, bringing out the full Safety Car.
This allowed Red Bull, to again pit both cars, this time, onto a set of the Softs, whereas Mercedes keep Hamilton out on his very worn Hards. The only thing in the 7-time world champion’s favour was that he had five lapped cars to slow him down. On the next lap, Perez retires with an unknown problem, leaving it a 1 v 1 for the race win. Getting onto the last 3 laps of the race, it is first announced that the lapped cars would not be allowed to unlap themselves, giving Mercedes a good buffer. This buffer was swiftly removed, as the FIA announced that only the cars between Hamilton and Verstappen (Norris, Alonso, Ocon, Leclerc and Vettel) to unlap themselves as the Safety Car was due to return to the pits at the end of Lap 57.
As we enter the final racing lap of the season, the Top 10 was as follows, Hamilton, Verstappen, Sainz, Bottas, Tsunoda, Gasly, Norris, Alonso, Ocon and Leclerc.
As the Safety Car peels off ahead and leaves Hamilton to control the pace, Verstappen is all too eager to get up alongside Hamilton through the final few corners of the very technical 3rd Sector. Hamilton sets off, getting a good exit off the final corner, allowing him to remain ahead of Verstappen along the main straight, and through Sector 1, but by the time we get to Turn 5, the Red Bull makes another long lunge down the inside of Hamilton, a move which he is able to hold down the first back straight, and holds off the Mercs’ move at Turn 6. Hamilton gets a far better exit out of the chicane of Turns 6 and 7 and the two end up being side by side going towards Turn 9, but Max, being on the better tyre, is able to remain ahead through the banked corner. Further back, Bottas drops behind both the Alpha Tauri’s, falling to P6.
As we look to the line for the final time in 2021, Verstappen, in his Red Bull, crosses the line, to become the first World Champion from Holland in the history of Formula 1. Hamilton ends the race in P2, with Carlos Sainz to round off the podium in P3. Both Alpha Tauri’s claim P4 and P5 (Tsunoda and Gasly respectively), ahead of Bottas (P6), Norris (P7) and both Alpines of Alonso and Ocon (P8 and P9 respectively), with Leclerc rounding off the points paying positions (P10).
When looking at the race as a whole, a rather boring affair, with the action between Hamilton and Perez being the most interesting moment. Despite this, the chaos on the last few laps have made it the perfect end to a truly mad season.
My Driver of the Day goes to Yuki Tsunoda, with a very strong qualifying, and an even stronger race, giving him his best result in the sport. An honourable mention has to go to Sainz, with a clean and composed race which brought him home a 4th podium of the season.
The undoubted winner of the weekend however is Max Verstappen, toppling Hamilton’s near decade long dominance of the sport. Max had wonderful little moments following the race with his father, his girlfriend, and his team principle, Christian Horner.
The losers of the weekend, despite clinching the Constructors Championship, has to be Mercedes, after stubbornly leaving Hamilton out on ageing tyres, resulting in him losing the chance to claim his record-breaking 8th world title. The pleading of Wolff to Masi to get decisions that would favour Hamilton, was also extreme, as the team principal was quick to ignore the safety aspect of the sport. It is good to note, that Horner and Red Bull were also lobbying the Race Director.