Formula One had an unbelievable end to its 2021 season. At the moment of the final race in Abu Dhabi, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was tied in points with Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton was looking to win a record-breaking 8th World Championship. Verstappen wanted to be the first Dutchman to ever win a world title.
The stakes could not have been higher for both drivers and F1 as a sport. It was the first time in years that the driver’s championship was so close and the timing could have not been better for the FIA (the international racing regulatory body) as thousands of new fans tuned in to an F1 race after the smashing success of a Netflix documentary, the reality of this season actually looked more like something written out of a screenplay: both contenders tied, and everything left to be decided in the last race.
Hamilton dominated the whole race, until the very last moment
Although Verstappen started in pole position (first in the grid) in the race, Hamilton started dominating the race very early on, with the British overtaking the Dutch rider in the first lap and maintaining his lead after a controversial response by Hamilton to a move by Verstappen overtaking the Mercedes driver also in the first lap.
Despite the very effective and impressive attempts of Verstappen’s teammate, Mexican driver Sergio “Checo” Perez to stop him, Hamilton managed to not only keep but increase his advantage throughout the race. By the time the race was heading to its final 10 laps, the British driver held a very comfortable lead of more than 10 seconds (an eternity in F1) and it looked increasingly unlikely that Verstappen would be able to erase Hamilton’s difference, especially as there were six cars between both of them. In the words of the team principal of Red Bull, Christian Horner “we’ll need a miracle in these last 10 laps to turn things around.”
It appears as someone heard Horner, as a few minutes later a driver in the back of the line, Nicholas Latifi, crashed into the barriers after an intense fight for the last spot just a few laps before the end of the race. The crash caused the race director (basically the referee) to temporarily freeze the race by deploying a safety car, which means that drivers should all decrease their speed and not overtake any of their rivals until the debris from the crash was cleaned. At that moment it was unclear if the race would resume or if not, making Hamilton’s title a certainty.
The already controversial F1 season reached a fever pitch after Michael Masi, the race director, took the decision to order the cars that were standing between Hamilton and Verstappen to clear out the space before resuming the race, allowing Verstappen to cut the colossal 10-second difference between both of them to standing next to Hamilton for the first time since the beginning of the race.
The FIA then decided to restart the race for the final lap, making it a head-to-head contest between Verstappen and Hamilton. The entire season, with more than 20 races, would be defined in the last lap of the last race, definitely something worthy of a blockbuster movie. Verstappen had newer tires than Hamilton, making his car faster and more maneuverable, and overtook the British, who tried but was not able to regain first place, winning the lap, the race, and the title.
After dozens of laps of complete dominance by Hamilton, Verstappen managed (some would argue with help) to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
The FIA’s decision to restart the race after allowing Verstappen to get next to Hamilton was extremely controversial, and Mercedes immediately filed two protests questioning the decision and arguing that it went against the rules. However, the FIA decided that there was nothing to investigate, confirming Verstappen as the world champion.
Formula One’s future looks bright after years of stagnation
Despite the controversial end of the season, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix marked a high-water to the rising popularity of autosports in the United States. In 2021, there was an average of 916,000 viewers during the first half of the season, a 51% increase compared to 2020, and in 2020 the sport had a 99% surge in social media engagement. This is a significant turnaround for a sport that suffered a constant decline in viewers for years.
The newfound popularity of Formula One has been largely attributed to the success of a Netflix show called Formula 1: Drive to Survive, where F1 teams gave unprecedented access to camera crews. The show does not really delve into technical details about racing but it focuses on the inherent drama of auto racing, making drivers and team managers into TV show characters. The show has attracted a large group of young viewers who were previously never interested in Formula One to the sport.
The close 2021 fight for the championship, combined with the expected new regulations that would make the sport more competitive in 2022, and the success of the Netflix show are surely great signs for the future of Formula One, and surely a model that many struggling sports leagues around the world would try to follow.