So the only way to split them after such a crazy close season was the random luck of a safety car timing just when it looked like Lewis Hamilton had it in the bag, his Mercedes faster all evening than Max Verstappen’s Red Bull at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
In this winner takes all contest, one side was going to be unhappy with whatever race director Michael Masi decided to do in the wake of clearing the wreck of Nicholas Latifi’s Williams at Turn 15 with six laps of the 2021 Formula 1 season to go.
Once the mess was cleared up there was time for one lap – but not if they allowed all the unlapped cars to unlap themselves. We’d still have been waiting for that process to play out as the chequer fell.
But what about the five lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen? Yes, they could pass! And the safety car would come in immediately, not on the conventional following lap (which would have been as the flag fell).
That decision put Verstappen on the brand new softs he’d just had fitted on the tail of Hamilton on 20-lap old hards. Hamilton was a sitting duck.
He defended but against Max Verstappen with a huge grip advantage and a world title on the line? There was little he could do on his slow-to-warm used hards as Verstappen used the greater grip of his new softs to outbrake him into the Turn 5 hairpin.
With Hamilton in his slipstream Verstappen weaved hard left up the following straight, then full track width right, then hard left once more. Technically, you are allowed one defensive move…
As they exited the Turn 6/7 chicane, Hamilton again had the slipstream on the Red Bull and moved to pass on the right but was crowded out over the kerbs on the approach to Turn 9. That was it.
Verstappen pulled away for the next few corners to take the winner-takes-all flag as world champion.
Or did he? Mercedes was pretty sure it had grounds for protest, primarily about whether the correct procedure was followed in allowing the lapped cars through. But also about whether Verstappen may have inched his nose ahead of Hamilton when they were still under the safety car.
It was a unique situation.
It seems obvious in hindsight that this season would end in an unpredictable edge of the seat way after such monstrously see-sawing fortunes where the waves of form had such savage amplitude.
But for almost the whole evening it looked like there really was no contest. Once Hamilton had taken the lead off the line despite his being on medium tyres to the softs of Max.
There was a little bit of argy-bargy on the run to Turns 6-7 on the first lap, where Verstappen thrust himself in the gap that Hamilton had left as he struggled to get it slowed on not-yet fully-warmed tyres, they touched lightly and Verstappen took up all the road as they were side-by-side, obliging Hamilton to steer hard-right and onto the run-off and rejoin still leading.
“He has to give the place back,” said Verstappen. But had Verstappen taken the place? Officialdom decided he hadn’t and so there was no place to give back.
Hamilton was however told to surrender the time advantage that taking the short cut had given him – which he did to the stewards’ satisfaction.
Red Bull probably felt its last chance had just disappeared. It just didn’t have the pace of the Mercedes despite softer tyres that should have been initially faster.
By the 10th lap Hamilton was 3.4s clear and going away. That was when Verstappen’s softs were beginning to wilt – and Hamilton pressed home the punishment of that with a pummelling series of new fastest laps.
This pace difference was about way more than just the offset tyre compounds, though. The Mercedes was instantly faster on tyres which should initially have been 0.5s slower and becoming faster than the soft only after about eight laps.
The Red Bull which had been so beautifully balanced on Saturday evening was being completely outpaced by a car which had qualified over 0.3s slower.
It was about how Mercedes had set its car up to protect the rear tyres which have sometimes been a problem for their cars through sector 3 here. It believed it could comfortably afford to do this because the Red Bull hadn’t looked quick – until it was, in Q3!
The extent to which track evolution came to its rescue in Q3 had surprised even Red Bull. It had made the choice of starting Verstappen on soft tyres only partly because Max had flat-spotted his only set of fresh mediums on the second flying lap of his first Q2 run.
Even before that, it was considering starting him on softs, in the expectation that he would be qualifying second as Hamilton’s Mercedes seemed to have a couple of tenths margin on it. The softs would at least give it something different to try, maybe get it track position at the start, as doing the same (ie starting on mediums) seemed a route to nowhere.
Red Bull, as the team struggling to get the car in the sweet spot, was continuing to tweak its set-up even as qualifying unfolded. Mercedes, happy with its apparent margin, felt no need to change anything, secure in the knowledge that the changes made since Friday had given it the best combination of qualifying and race pace.
But beneath them the track surface was gripping up fast and it turned out you absolutely needed to be making the big changes. So Red Bull didn’t exactly stumble into that lovely sweet spot which allowed Verstappen to unleash his devastating Q3 pole lap (with a couple of tenths of help from Sergio Perez’s tow), but it surprised it nonetheless. It had put it on pole with the ‘wrong’ tyre.
Then on race day, as Hamilton was checking in with the pitwall about his rear tyre temps and being assured they were all good, Verstappen was quickly struggling with his. Right from the start, there was no way he could run at Mercedes pace while keeping his tyres from overheating.
But the pair were still leaving the rest far, far behind – as so often this season – in the early stages of the race and so the opportunity was going to be there soon for Red Bull to bring Verstappen in. Still the significance of that didn’t seem great as Hamilton’s lead was out at over 5s when Verstappen made his early stop onto hards after 13 laps. Mercedes did the obvious and responded the next lap.
So early had Verstappen’s stop been he hadn’t quite cleared Carlos Sainz’s fourth place Ferrari whereas Hamilton exited just in front of it. By the time Verstappen put a successful move on the Ferrari, Hamilton’s advantage over him was out to over 8s.
But then Sergio Perez. He’s not as quick as Verstappen, nowhere near. But he’s a hard, tough racer and he knew what his role was as he led the race on old tyres with Hamilton catching him at 2s per lap.
Hamilton knew he knew. Lewis invariably gives him a wide berth and did so again on lap 20 as they approached the Turn 6/7 chicane side-by-side.
Hamilton had breezed by on the straight but didn’t block the inside – and Perez put himself in there. Hamilton repassed him on the exit but onto the following stretch of straight Perez squeezed himself on the painted section of the inside to tow himself back ahead as they came up to the no-passing area of sector 3.
Hamilton got the DRS on him down to Turn 1 but still Perez fought for the track space. By the time Hamilton was finally able to make a clean pass, Verstappen was only 2s behind – and congratulating Perez on being ‘a legend’. But then Hamilton simply began stretching away all over again.
Hamilton was 5.5s in front as the VSC was thrown for the broken-down Alfa Romeo of Antonio Giovinazzi at Turn 9 on lap 36, with 22 to go (the other Alfa of Kimi Raikkonen, in his last race, had long-since stopped with a technical).
This was just a foretaste of the agonising choices that would be facing Mercedes through the rest of the evening. If it took the opportunity to pit for new tyres, Red Bull would have kept Verstappen out and it would have lost the place.
Verstappen was always going to do the opposite – and he did, coming in for a set of fresh hards. By the time the VSC was rescinded, Hamilton’s lead was around 16s, so Verstappen had saved around 6s over a conventional stop and was now on rubber 22 laps newer than Hamilton’s.
Perez was almost half-a-minute behind him but 14s in front of the battle for fourth where Sainz held the upper hand over Lando Norris’ McLaren which would later puncture a left-front and fall back to ninth before recovering back to seventh in the last lap scramble.
Hamilton was nervous about Verstappen having got fresh tyres but was assured by the team that the Red Bull would need to catch him at 0.8s per lap to be with him by the end. Even on new tyres, he wasn’t going to do that.
Hamilton was instructed to up the pace – and did so but was puzzled.
“I’m not going to be able to keep going at this pace,” he said, in reference to the tyres. It’s true, he wasn’t. But the faster Hamilton made Verstappen drive, the more the Red Bull’s tyre deg would be greater than the Mercedes’.
It was all about the relative pace, not the absolute and making Verstappen push hard on new tyres was going to maximise their degradation.
Initially Verstappen was 0.6s faster, then 0.4s, 0.3s, 0.2s, 0.2s, 0.2s on subsequent laps. Nowhere near enough to have any prospect of being close by the end. That seemed to be that.
Then Nicholas Latifi, fighting Mick Schumacher’s Haas for the penultimate place, crashed his Williams exiting Turn 15, rear wheel clattering into the barrier and bouncing the front in too. Safety car on lap 52 with just six laps left.
The same agonising decision on the Mercedes pitwall. To pit or not to pit. It couldn’t pit, not really, even though Hamilton hadn’t quite reached the pit entry as the safety car came out. If it had done so, Verstappen – just 11s behind – would have stayed out and taken the lead.
Instead, Verstappen came in and was fitted with a set of new soft tyres, as was Perez. Could Mercedes have pitted Hamilton the following lap, with the race still under the safety car and still emerged in front? No, he was only 7.8s in front of the pitted Verstappen (because of the compressing effect of the safety car) by this time and even though the field had been slowed to a safety car crawl, he’d have lost more than that by pitting.
So he was trapped, in the lead but on ancient hard tyres and his rival on brand new softs. He had to hope the race would end under the safety car. And it looked like it would, as it took some time to clear the Williams and its debris off the track.
Meanwhile Perez was told to retire from his third place immediately, much to his puzzlement. The team was seeing signs on the engine suggesting imminent failure – and the last thing it wanted was to extend the safety car period as Verstappen’s chances of taking the world title depended upon the race restarting.
Sainz was thus promoted to third. With an old-tyred Valtteri Bottas behind him a potential sitting duck to the two soft-tyred AlphaTauris – Yuki Tsunoda ahead of Pierre Gasly – which had pitted for softs under the safety car, having passed Fernando Alonso’s Alpine a few laps earlier.
There were five lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen – Norris, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel – and under normal circumstances these would be allowed to unlap themselves when the track was cleared and as they motored off to reach the back of the pack, the safety car would come in at the end of the following lap.
But by the time the track was cleared there were just two laps left. If that procedure had been followed the safety car would have been coming in just as the chequered flag was about to be shown.
A race control message of ‘lapped cars will not be allowed to pass’ – ie the race would get underway with those five lapped cars delaying Verstappen’s attack on Hamilton.
Four minutes later this was replaced by the message that those five cars would be allowed to pass. No mention of the other lapped cars. Furthermore, the safety car would be coming in on that lap, not the next one.
And, like that, the soft-tyred Verstappen ambushed his way to the world championship, the AlphaTauris mugged Bottas for fourth and fifth.
Then the arguments started.