In a season full of drama and controversy, it almost feels fitting the championship title was decided on the final lap of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton entered the race level on points — a feat that has only happened once before in the sport’s 71-year history, when Emerson Fittipaldi and Clay Regazzoni entered the 1974 finale level. It was winner-takes-all.
And after all the excitement and buildup, the race did not disappoint. There was controversy from the first lap, with both title contenders having their own share of the luck. But in the end, 24-year-old Verstappen claimed the race and the championship title.
Here is how it all unfolded.
Lap 1: Hamilton made a much better start than Verstappen to lead into Turn 1, but the controversy began at Turn 6.
With so much at stake, it was inevitable to see drama from lights out. Hamilton jumping ahead of his title rival was a huge moment, but the biggest event of the lap came at Turn 6.
Verstappen had closed in and attempted to go up the inside of Hamilton. His move was late, but his braking timed well enough to make the corner and stay on the track. Hamilton, however, was forced wide and cut the corner at the chicane before retaking the lead.
“He has to give that back,” Verstappen said over the radio, but the stewards do not note the incident until two laps later.
Lap 3: The controversy continued as the stewards confirmed no investigation was necessary for the Lap 1 incident.
The stewards’ review decided Verstappen gained an advantage by forcing Hamilton off, which Hamilton simply neutralised by cutting the corner.
Red Bull were furious, and confused. They said it was simply hard racing — Verstappen was ahead at the apex and made the corner. All through this, Hamilton’s lead was slowly increasing.
Lap 13: After struggling with his soft tyres, Verstappen was forced into early change.
He had gone out on the softs, but by Lap 9 was struggling with rear tyre degradation. He waited until Lap 13 to change to hards, coming out behind Lando Norris in sixth.
Red Bull had to hope these compounds had stronger pace if he was to catch up with Hamilton.
Lap 15: Mercedes brought Hamilton into the pit, switching from medium tyres to hards.
Bringing Hamilton in was a logical decision for Mercedes to neutralise the race and cover off their rival. He rejoined behind Sergio Perez, but crucially, still 4.8s ahead of Verstappen.
Lap 18: With Carlos Sainz the only driver separating the title contenders, Hamilton set a new fastest lap.
Some clean racing from Hamilton allowed him to extend his gap with Verstappen to 8.0s, while his rival was struggling to pass the Ferrari.
However, at Turn 6, Verstappen took his chance and overtook Sainz and sit behind his rival.
Lap 20: Hamilton had closed in on Perez, but the Red Bull put up a fight for his teammate.
Knowing that Verstappen needed to make up time, Perez put up a great defence against the seven-time world champion. Hamilton passed him out of Turn 5 and into Turn 6, before Perez retook the lead out of Turn 7.
And when Hamilton finally passed the Red Bull in the following lap, Verstappen was just 1.2s behind.
“Checo is a legend,” Verstappen said over the team radio.
Lap 22 to 34: Despite the good work from his teammate, Verstappen struggled to keep up with Hamilton’s pace, the Dutchman’s championship appearing to slip away slightly after every lap.
Kimi Raikkonen’s F1 career came to a sad close when he stopped on Lap 26, but the resulting yellow flag did not change much as Hamilton continued to storm away from his rival.
Lap 37: A Virtual Safety Car was deployed after Antonio Giovinazzi’s car stopped on the track at the high-speed Turn 9.
The VSC, which requires the drivers to drive at a slower speed to allow marshals to carry out safety work, gave Verstappen an opportunity to pit and change to another set of hard tyres.
However, Hamilton stayed put, with Mercedes later explaining the potential to lose track position was too high for him to pit. In other words, if he had pitted, Verstappen would have stayed out and taken the lead.
The decision left Hamilton with tyres 22 laps older than Verstappen’s for the remaining 20 laps of the race.
Lap 38 to 52: Verstappen’s chance of the championship title looked almost certain to be lost, with Hamilton maintaining his pace, and the gap between them.
It just was not working for the Dutchman. Hamilton had the pace advantage, and his tyres were still holding up.
Lap 53: But just as all seemed lost for Verstappen, Nicholas Latifi crashed out!
The Williams driver hits the wall under the hotel after running wide at Turn 15, with a safety car needed to clear the damage.
This was the stroke of luck Red Bull needed. The deployment of the safety car would reduce the gap between the title contenders to zero.
Lap 54: With the safety car deployed, Hamilton was unable to pit, leaving him with no option but to see out the remaining four laps with his old tyres.
“That’s unbelievable, man,” Hamilton said over his team radio.
Verstappen, however, was able to be brought in, switching to fresh, soft tyres to close out the Grand Prix.
At this point, Mercedes might have regretted not taking the opportunity to pit earlier in the race.
Lap 56: This is where it got controversial — again.
The initial message from race control said lapped cars would not be allowed to overtake the safety, presumably to speed up the restart.
There were five cars between Hamilton and Verstappen, and the Dutchman would have to pass all of them to get close to Hamilton. Another blow to Red Bull — or so it seemed.
Lap 57: Red Bull were furious. The safety car was still out, and the lapped cars were still between the title rivals.
Red Bull boss Horner asked race director Michael Masi: “Why aren’t we getting these cars out of the way? We only need one racing lap.”
And under this pressure, Massi seemed to crumble, allowing the five cars to be let through and bringing Verstappen right up behind his rival.
This made it a straight fight until the end. A one-lap shootout. A battle between the two drivers who have headlined this entire season.
Lap 58: Verstappen made his move into Turn 5, and crossed the line first to secure the victory and the championship after an unbelievable race. Hamilton had a go at repassing the Red Bull round the outside of Turn 9, but on his older tyres, he could not make it stick.
On crossing the line Verstappen seemed in disbelief, screaming down his radio: “Oh my God, oh my God.”
Sainz claimed the final podium spot, ahead of Yuki Tsunoda.
This was a race full of controversy on so many levels — a story that seems to reflect the entirety of this F1 season.
As Verstappen and Red Bull celebrated the remarkable final lap, Mercedes were furious. Boss Toto Wolff was screaming at Masi over the radio at what had transpired.
“Michael! Michael! You have to go back a lap,” Wolff said, saying the results should count from only the lap before the Safety Car came in.
Masi replied: “Toto … Toto … this is a motor race.”
Mercedes subsequently submitted a protest over the result, which was later rejected by the FIA.
Verstappen, however, was overjoyed at his first championship title.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s insane,” he said. “Finally a bit of luck for me. I also want to say a big thank you to Checo, he drove his heart out today.”
“To my team, I think they know they love them. I hope I can stay with them for 10 or 15 years for the rest of my life.”
This is just unbelievable. I started racing with my dad many years ago. We dreamed of becoming a World Champion and now we are.
— Max Verstappen (@Max33Verstappen) December 12, 2021