After 21 races, the 2021 Formula 1 season will come down to a one-race shootout this weekend. Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen are miraculously tied on 369.5 points a piece heading into the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix where a world champion will finally be crowned. No matter what happens on Sunday, a trophy will be handed out.
In fact, two trophies will be handed out with Mercedes and Red Bull also in close combat for the constructors’ championship. Just 28 points separates the two rival teams, but their duel is crystallised in the contest between Hamilton and Verstappen which has captivated from the first race of the season to the last.
Hamilton arrives at the Yas Marina Circuit with momentum. Indeed, the seven-time world champion has won the last three races in Brazil, Qatar and Saudi Arabia with his victory at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit one of the most memorable in recent memory. It took the drama of this season to a whole new level.
A finishing record to behold as we return to Abu Dhabi 👀
— Formula 1 (@F1) December 8, 2021
Indeed, the Saudi Arabia GP saw the rivalry between Hamilton and Verstappen reach boiling point with the latter handed a 10-second time penalty and penalty points for causing a collision with the former. Of course, this wasn’t the first time that the two world championship contenders had come to blows, but this felt like the dirtiest moment so far.
“I’ve raced a lot of drivers through my life in the 28 years [of racing] and I’ve come across a lot of different characters and there are a few at the top which are kind of over the limit,” Hamilton said after the Saudi Arabia GP, referencing his duel with Verstappen. “Rules kind of don’t apply, or don’t think of the rules. [Verstappen is] over the limit, for sure.”
Verstappen, who was booed by the fans at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit on the podium, maintained his innocence and made the point that the FIA stewards have been over-zealous all the way through this season. “I’m just trying to race and this sport lately is more about penalties than racing,” he said. “For me, this is not Formula 1.”
In the past, F1 sold itself on the thrill of speed and the technology of its machinery. In the ‘Drive To Survive’ era, though, the sport has focused more on the rivalries and relationships between the drivers and this season’s title race between Hamilton and Verstappen has been the best encapsulation of this.
Fans won’t just tune in on Sunday to watch a race between two drivers, they will tune in to watch the culmination of a confrontation between two compelling characters. It is not in the character of either Hamilton or Verstappen to back down from a fight and that raises prospects of what might unfold in Abu Dhabi.
📍 𝙔𝙖𝙖𝙖𝙨 𝙈𝙖𝙧𝙞𝙣𝙖 😎 pic.twitter.com/lsBARQNara
— Red Bull Racing Honda (@redbullracing) December 9, 2021
If both drivers were not to finish the final race of the season, Verstappen would take the championship on his greater number of race victories over the course of the year. After what happened in Saudi Arabia, where some believe Verstappen ‘brake-tested’ Hamilton, it has been suggested that the Dutchman could use another ploy to eliminate his rival.
“We want to win the title on the track, not in race control or in the gravel,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said when asked if he cared about how the championship is decided, presented with the possibility of Verstappen getting the job done by default. “I hope it will be a fair and clean race in Abu Dhabi.”
“I would hope that [Sunday’s] race has enough repercussions that everybody’s going to learn from it and adapt for the final race,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff added, echoing Horner’s sentiment. “I don’t think that the championship has deserved a result which was influenced by a collision.”
Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez could play a key role on Sunday. While Bottas suffered a difficult mid-part of the season as speculation over his future at Mercedes swirled, the Finnish driver has backed up Hamilton with a series of impressive performances. He has done so not just in terms of the points he has won for the Silver Arrows, but also due to his tactical importance.
This was most obvious at Interlagos where Bottas stopped Verstappen and Perez from doubling up on Hamilton, who subsequently went on to claim a race victory that reignited his season. Perez did a similar job for Verstappen at the Mexican Grand Prix where the 31-year-old held back Hamilton from his teammate.
Morning boys. 💜☕️ Welcome back to Yas Marina. pic.twitter.com/WNAw3UyBkU
— Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team (@MercedesAMGF1) December 9, 2021
There will be other storylines to follow in the final race of the season with the fight to finish fifth in the drivers’ championship going down to the wire. Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris are divided by just four points with Ferrari and McLaren rivals for the same positions on the grid and in the standings all year long.
Ferrari likely have third place in the constructors’ championship in the bag after a strong showing from Leclerc and Carlos Sainz in the second half of the season. Alpine meanwhile are favourites to take fifth place over AlphaTauri, who are reliant solely on Pierre Gasly to deliver points after a difficult rookie season for Yuki Tsunoda.
2022 will see F1 shaken up due to the long-awaited rule changes and this has resulted in a fallow season for many of the teams in the pit lane. Haas, for instance, have spent the full year planning for 2022 without making a single upgrade to their car. Alfa Romeo, who will see Kimi Raikkonen bid farewell to the sport this weekend, are also looking beyond this year.
However, the Abu Dhabi GP will be defined by what happens at the front of the pack. In the grand scheme of things, nothing else beyond the duel between Hamilton and Verstappen matters. The 2021 F1 season has been one of the most exciting and dramatic on record and Sunday’s race promises one final must-watch episode, which is apt for a sport increasingly viewed through the prism of a TV show.