Verstappen crowned champion in last lap Abu Dhabi showdown

Race winner and World Champion Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing celebrates in parc ferme with Christian Horner (GBR) Red Bull Racing Team Principal. 12.12.2021. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 22, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Yas Marina
© XPB 

Max Verstappen emerged victorious with a maiden Formula 1 world championship after an extraordinary final one-lap sprint showdown against Lewis Hamilton in the 2021 title decider in Abu Dhabi.

Hamilton took the lead from Verstappen at the start only to be run wide off track at turn 6, and was controversially allowed to keep the lead by race control over heated protests from Red Bull.

Mercedes looked to be in control from then, until a late accident for Williams' Nicholas Latifi resulted in a safety car and a one lap sprint shoot-out at the restart between the leading pair to decide the title, with Verstappen emerging on top.

After playing a crucial role holding up Hamilton mid-race, Sergio Perez retired in the final minutes leaving Mercedes with the constructors championship and Ferrari's Carlos Sainz on the podium.

Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W12 leads at the start of the race. 12.12.2021. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 22, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Yas Marina

And so it had all come down to this: the longest, hardest, fiercest and most emotionally draining season in the history of Formula 1 now coalesced into a single moment with 19 cars lining up on the grid as the sun set over Yas Marina Circuit. White-knuckle thriller or damp squib finish, no one watching the scene could possible know for certain what was going to happen next: was Max Verstappen about to achieve his life's ambition to be crowned world champion, or would Lewis Hamilton cement his place as Greatest Of All Time with a record eighth title? Nor was it just a matter of individuals, with their respective teams Red Bull and Mercedes also locked in a titanic struggle to decide the outcome of the constructors championship.

Verstappen had landed the first blow by claiming a surprise but emphatic pole position on soft tyres, but Hamilton was right next to him on the front row on mediums as the starting lights overhead came on one-by-one to signify the countdown to the start of the race. Behind them, McLaren's Lando Norris and Verstappen's team mate Sergio Perez had arguably the best seats in the house but with that privilege came the pressure of having to decide how to handle the start: push too hard and they could inadvertently play an infamous role in the title battle ahead of them. Carlos Sainz was in something of no man's land starting in fifth, but he too had extra pressure with Valtteri Bottas lining just behind the Ferrari - too far back to help Hamilton at the start, but still with his own crucial role to play in his final outing for Mercedes.

The lights finished their count, and went out. The race was underway, and it was Hamilton who got the dream start with Verstappen scrambling to launch despite having the grippier tyres. However Hamilton was himself struggling to get temperature into his tyres on the opening lap, and heading into turn 6 he was vulnerable to a lunge from Verstappen. Hamilton was forced to cut the corner before rejoining, and then assiduously ensured that he handed back any time advantage he had gained over his rival in the corners that followed, but Red Bull were incensed when Hamilton was allowed to keep the lead with race control deciding no investigation was required. "We're a little bit shocked at that," commented team boss Christian Horner.

Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W12 and Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB16B battle for the lead at the start of the race. 12.12.2021. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 22, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Yas Marina

"Rears are starting to struggle a little bit," declared Verstappen on lap 9, but he had to tough it out to make the soft tyres last long enough to stick to a two stop strategy. By now, Hamilton had pulled out a two-and-a-half second lead with Perez up to third from Sainz. Norris had run wide into the opening corner and fallen to fifth ahead of Charles Leclerc and Yuki Tsunoda, with Bottas dropping to eighth ahead of Esteban Ocon and Daniel Ricciardo.

Further fastest laps enabled Hamilton to stretch his lead while Verstappen's rear tyre concerns grew worse, forcing him to pit for a set of hard tyres on lap 14. That dropped him to fifth ahead of Leclerc, who appeared distracted by the Red Bull's return and briefly went off. Hamilton responded immediately on the next lap and came back out in second ahead of Sainz, leaving Perez minding the store in the lead. Others who had started on the softs were also soon coming in including Leclerc and Ocon, but Sainz ploughed on and resisted attempts by Verstappen to get by with the Red Bull briefly flying off at turn 16 as he pressed for all he was worth. He finally succeeded in getting the position on lap 18 going through turn 6 putting him back up to third but still nine seconds behind Hamilton who was now within DRS activation range of Perez.

Perez made it as difficult as possible for Hamilton to get past, the Mercedes initially succeeding in getting the lead through the chicane only for Perez to then get the DRS advantage into turn 9 to wrest it back. It took another lap before Hamilton was finally able to dispatch the Mexican once and for all by which time Verstappen was within two seconds of his rival, declaring "Checo is a legend!" with considerable justification over the team radio. After that Perez departed the field for his own deferred pit stop, leaving Hamilton and Verstappen out on their own to play out their season-long duel at the front with 34 laps remaining.

Sergio Perez (MEX) Red Bull Racing RB16B leads Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W12. 12.12.2021. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 22, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Yas Marina

Turn 27 saw a significant moment of Formula 1 history as Kimi Raikkonen ended his unparalleled career limping back to the Alfa Romeo garage after suffering a brake failure that snapped him into a slide into the wall at turn 6. Although he was able to extricate himself with just a damaged front wing, there no prospect of continuing. Also suffering an early end was George Russell whose Williams suffered a sudden power unit cut out on lap 28. They were the first retirements of the evening, although Nikita Mazepin had been withdrawn overnight and did not start the race after the Haas driver returned a positive COVID test.

Back in clear air at the front, Hamilton had progressively pulled away from from Verstappen and was now five seconds clear as Red Bull deliberated on the timing of a second stop. By comparison, Bottas had made his opening set of mediums last 31 laps before stopping after which the first task on his to-do list was to pass Leclerc for eighth. Further up the road, Fernando Alonso and Pierre Gasly were yet to stop having started on the hard compound and now running in fourth and fifth respectively.

Red Bull's decision to bring both Verstappen and Perez in for new sets of hard tyres was jump started by a Virtual Safety Car on lap 38 caused by Antonio Giovinazzi suffering a gearbox shifting failure and pulling off at turn 9 requiring track workers to leap into action. Surprisingly, Mercedes decided not to call Hamilton in at the same time: there was now just 17s between them and Verstappen was punching in fastest laps and closing at a rate of almost eighth tenths per lap with 20 laps to go, setting up a knife-edge finish after all.

Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Alfa Romeo Racing C41 goes off during the race. 12.12.2021. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 22, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Yas Marina

Perez was still lapping in a safe third as Red Bull continued to challenge for the team title, with Sainz in fourth leading a train of cars including Norris, Bottas and Tsunoda. Gasly and Alonso had dropped back to eighth and ninth after pitting under the VSC, leaving Ocon at the foot of the top ten ahead of Ricciardo, Leclerc and Aston Martin pair Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll, Mick Schumacher in the sole surviving Haas running just ahead of Williams' Nicholas Latifi bringing up the rear.

All the scheduled strategic ploys had been played out and now all the teams could do was wait and see how the final laps played out. Hamilton was holding his own with Verstappen not making great in-roads into his rival's lead as the pair started to work their way through lapped traffic. With five laps remaining it looked like the race and the championship were settled, but then an accident for Latifi at turn 14 triggered a safety car that once again threw the proverbial feral cat among the pigeons. With nothing to lose Red Bull again calculated to do whatever Mercedes didn't: when Hamilton stayed out, Verstappen pitted for new tyres, but Perez was retired from third place with a technical issue.

Others also took the chance to pit, scrambling the order. Now the question was whether there would be time for the marshals to clear the wrecked Williams in time for racing to resume, in which case Hamilton's ageing tyres would make him a sitting duck to Verstappen's latest set. There was also the issue of whether lapped cars would be allowed to pass the safety car before the restart. The first of these had just been given the all-clear when the safety car dived into pit lane leaving shock, horror and confusion in the Mercedes garage as the inevitable consequences became clear.

Race winner and World Champion Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB16B wins the race ahead of second placed Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W12. 12.12.2021. Formula 1 World Championship, Rd 22, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Yas Marina

Hamilton and Verstappen were wheel-to-wheel at the restart and Hamilton tried all he could to hold on, but the fresher tyres gave Verstappen an insurmountable advantage over the single lap and by the finish he was two seconds ahead - and the first Dutch driver to be crowned world champion. There was silence from Hamilton's cockpit and howls of complaint from the Mercedes pit wall, but for now at least the deed was done. Formula 1 had a brand new champion for the first time since 2016.

With Perez out of the picture, Sainz inherited the final podium place ahead of Tsunoda, Gasly and Bottas meaning that Mercedes had the consolation prize of the team title. Norris had to recover from a slow puncture to take seventh ahead of Alonso, Ocon and Leclerc while Vettel just missed out on points along with Ricciardo, Stroll and Schumacher.

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