Max Verstappen overcame incredible odds to claim his first F1 World Championship crown by overtaking rival Lewis Hamilton on the final lap of the incredibly controversial Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Verstappen became the first Dutch F1 champion in history. He becomes the first Red Bull driver to win a title since Sebastian Vettel in 2013.
Verstappen’s title ends a nearly uncontested run of four straight championships for Lewis Hamilton, who remains searching for a record eighth championship.
Verstappen, 24, had qualified on pole but lost the lead to Hamilton at Turn 1. The Dutchman passed Hamilton at Turn 4 on the opening lap, but Hamilton went wide and cut straight through Turn 7, then rejoining to keep the lead while substantially gaining track space.
The Dutchman and his Red Bull team were furious with the steward’s decision not to require Hamilton to give the lead back, but the team would appeal.
Instead, it will be the last lap of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that will be forever remembered as a breathtaking end to one of the most dramatic F1 seasons ever.
Verstappen, running in second place, seemed to have no way to close on Hamilton until William’s Nicholas Latifi crashed in Turn 14, triggering a Virtual Safety Car on Lap 52 of 58.
The race restarted on the final lap of the Grand Prix, and Verstappen’s Red Bull reeled in Hamilton, now struggling on worn tyres with less grip.
The end came at Turn 3 as the Dutchman passed Hamilton’s defenceless Mercedes to snatch the lead, race victory, and first world title.
Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz took third, brandishing equally polished gladiatorial skills.
The restart decision was controversial, with FIA race director Michael Masi holding his ground in ordering lapped cars to overtake the Safety Car and return to the rear of the field.
“Michael! Michael! You have to go back a lap,” Toto Wolff screamed, saying the results should count from only the lap before the Safety Car came in.
Masi replied: “Toto … Toto … this is a motor race.”
Allowing lapped cars to overtake the Safety Car and return to the rear of the field is a general part of restarting from a Safety Car. In this case, it effectively meant Verstappen would then line up right behind Hamilton on fresh tyres. The Brit was still on the tyres he had pitted for on Lap 15.
Verstappen was unstoppable on the new tyres when the Safety Car came in, and the race restarted.
Yas Marina Circuit was notoriously difficult to overtake in the past, so pole position was crucial. It was altered in 2021 to aid passing, or the least, to allow following a car closer into and out of strategic corners.
For Q1 and Q2, Mercedes looked to have the advantage in raw pace.
Max Verstappen responded by putting his Red Bull on pole by nearly four-tenths of a second over Hamilton.
Thanks to a slipstream ‘tow’ from Mexican teammate Sergio Perez, his car came alive when it mattered, with Verstappen’s first fastest lap put his Red Bull on pole by nearly four-tenths of a second over Hamilton.
It was a simply magnificent lap, and Hamilton had no answer.
But Hamilton, starting on the more durable medium tyres, believed he could strategically be in a stronger position, with Verstappen starting on the fragile soft tyres.
Verstappen and Hamilton arrived at their starting boxes tied in points. Red Bull trailed Mercedes by 28 points in the constructors’ championship.
Hamilton took the lead into the first corner with a strong start. Verstappen made up ground in the first sector, hurtling aggressively towards Turn 5…
The aggressive Dutchman puts it into the lead, sending a bold move from a long way back. He gained the lead for a moment before the Brit opened his arc, crossing the entire expanse of the runoff and rejoined the track with a substantially larger lead.
Would Hamilton have to give the place back? Verstappen thought he should, but Hamilton sailed on.
Lap 2 of 58 passed, and Hamilton had not returned the place. Verstappen is 1.3s off Hamilton’s lead.
Race Control announced, “no investigation necessary” at the end of the lap.
Starting Lap 7, Hamilton leads Verstappen by 1.9s. Perez is clinging onto the back of Verstappen, just about three seconds off. By Lap 9, it’s clear Red Bull has no answer.
“Rears starting to struggle,” Verstappen says.
He’s consistently losing a tenth or two to Hamilton now.
On Lap 13, Verstappen dived into the pits and onto the hard tyres. It’s a quick stop, and he comes out in a bit of traffic, behind Sainz and Norris. Leclerc goes very wide as he encounters Verstappen coming out of the pits.
Mercedes pits Hamilton on Lap 14. He rejoins in second, 8.8s behind Sergio Perez. Verstappen closed in on Carlos Sainz in third, yet to stop. The Dutchman trails Hamilton by nearly seven seconds.
On Lap 20, Hamilton attacks Perez. The Brit gets a strong exit out of the hairpin. He passes Perez, but Checo comes back up the inside. Hamilton gets DRS on the next straight, but the super aggressive Perez takes the position back. All this time, Verstappen is closing the gap.
On Lap 26, Kimi Raikkonen’s brakes fail, and he hits the wall. He continues to the pits and retires from F1. Verstappen’s now 3.8s behind Hamilton. He appears to be cruising to his eighth world title.
Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo teammate Giovinazzi also has brake failure on Lap 35. The crash brings out a Virtual Safety Car. Will either of the leaders pit? Yes, Verstappen stops for new tyres as Hamilton stays out.
Behind the scenes, Toto Wolff is on the radio to Michael Masi pleading for there not to be a Safety Car.
Verstappen’s stop was nearly free, but could he close up on Hamilton? It’s all to play for as Hamilton stays on 23 lap old hard tyres, while Verstappen has a brand new set.
Just 21 laps to go, the Dutchman needs less than a second a lap.
Verstappen’s nightmare becomes clear with six laps to go. The gap has stabilised at 11 seconds again. Barring a miracle, it’s over for Verstappen.
At that moment, Nicholas Latifi crashed exiting Turn 14.
With four laps remaining, Red Bull brings Verstappen in for a third time to go to the softs. Mercedes holds Hamilton in place as it would have meant sacrificing the lead.
At first, the incident looked to take most of the remaining race to clear. Lapped cars that had filtered between the leaders – Norris, Alonso, Ocon, Leclerc, and Vettel were not allowed to overtake the safety ahead of the restart.
In one of the most surprising turns in any Grand Prix, Masi reversed this call just ahead of the final lap. With Verstappen just yards behind Hamilton’s tail, the Brit first slows to back up Verstappen.
And then the Brit nails the throttle. Verstappen reacts a millisecond later and closes in the first sector. They touch again. as Verstappen goes deep into the hairpin and takes the lead. Hamilton regains momentum and responds, but he can’t take the lead.
Verstappen takes the lead by two seconds and crosses the finish line to thunderous bedlam as the 2021 Formula 1 Champion.
During the late safety car, Sergio Perez was retired in the pits, with AlphaTauri pair Yuki Tsunoda and Pierre Gasly taking fourth and fifth ahead of Valterri Bottas. The latter worked his way back up from a poor first lap – gaining when Norris suffered his puncture.
Norris claimed seventh ahead of Alonso and Ocon, with Leclerc rounding out the top 10 – his Ferrari losing ground after stopping during the VSC.