How Max Verstappen defeated Lewis Hamilton to claim the 2021 title
It quickly became clear at the start of the year that Mercedes would not have an easy road to the title in 2021.
After seven years of no serious competition for the drivers ‘or constructors’ title, the reigning world champions suddenly found themselves in the background. Red Bull emerged as the team to beat in pre-season testing as Mercedes struggled to adapt its 2020 car to regulatory changes aimed at slowing down the entire peloton to protect Pirelli’s tires.
The rule changes clearly impacted Mercedes’ design concept more than its rivals, but it had the benefit of creating one of the most competitive seasons to date, as Red Bull finally got its mark. car and engine together from the first race.
Hamilton strikes the first shots
Despite Mercedes’ early struggles, Hamilton still won the opening race in Bahrain before the two championship contenders began trading wins in the first third of the season. Hamilton’s biggest points advantage came after a dominant victory at the Spanish Grand Prix, but it was his last win in 11 races and was followed by his worst performance of the year in Monaco, where he finished disappointing seventh despite teammate Valtteri Bottas running in the top three before a pitstop problem.
A decisive point for both drivers came at the Azerbaijani Grand Prix in Baku. Verstappen looked set for a comfortable victory for most of the race until his right rear tire exploded to over 200 mph with just five laps remaining. The crash forced him to retire and resulted in the race being suspended as track workers cleaned up the mess, presenting a direct fight between Verstappen’s Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez and Hamilton for the win.
Hamilton escaped better on the restart, but left his car in the wrong brake setting before the first corner and deep into the second lap, dropping him to the back of the field. Just as Verstappen saw 25 points disappear in the blink of an eye with his tire failure, Hamilton did on restart, with Perez winning the race.
Verstappen quickly put Baku’s disappointment behind him and then gained momentum with a victory against the tide at the French Grand Prix and two dominant performances at the local Red Bull circuit in Austria. It looked like Verstappen and Red Bull had finally created the momentum to take a decisive lead in the championship, but that was when the British Grand Prix came at Silverstone.
The first major flash point
The battle between Verstappen and Hamilton was so close that it seemed inevitable that they would collide at some point in the season. The two had come close to clashing in Italy (Imola), Portugal and Spain, but Hamilton always backed up at the last minute to avoid a last-minute collision.
At Silverstone, Hamilton was the aggressor, coming from behind and having to make a move to stop Verstappen’s championship momentum. After the two fought for position for the first two-thirds of the lap, it became increasingly clear that the battle should be decided before or in the Copse Corner at 190 mph. The wide right-hand turn is just wide enough to accommodate two cars driving behind the wheel, but it requires impeccable judgment on the part of both drivers as well as a willingness to make room for space.
As Hamilton put his car inside, Verstappen showed no desire to give it more room and as the front of Hamilton’s car was wide on a tighter angle, the cars got tangled. In a split second, Verstappen’s car was in a four-wheel slip and on its way to a horrific accident.
The car came to a stop so suddenly against the barriers that 51 times the force of gravity was applied to both man and machine from 190 mph. Verstappen was fortunate enough to make it unaided, but he followed the circuit doctor’s advice to go straight to the hospital for further check-ups. Hamilton, meanwhile, continued on track and, despite a 10-second penalty for causing the crash, won the race.
From that point on, the nature of the championship battle changed. Hamilton won a much-needed 25-point swing in his favor in the standings, but Verstappen seemed more determined than ever to claim the title.
Collision two at Monza
The next time the two riders found themselves in a wheel-to-wheel battle it was in the first lap of the Italian Grand Prix at the Roggia chicane. Fighting for second, Verstappen again left Hamilton no room, forcing the Mercedes through the second lap and leaving Hamilton at the bottom of the order.
A slow pit stop for Verstappen later in the race put them back on a collision course at the first chicane on lap 26, but this time no driver was willing to give in. Hamilton, who had just come out of his own pit stop, appeared to have claimed the position, but Verstappen let his car’s nose into the turn and the two made contact, throwing the Red Bull over the Mercedes.
Verstappen’s right rear tire made contact with Hamilton’s helmet as he passed over the Mercedes and only the halo shield of Hamilton’s car cockpit kept his head from being crushed. Both pilots withdrew from the race following the collision and, once again, the battle lines were dug deeper thanks to media comments.
Hamilton eventually claimed his 100th Grand Prix victory at the Russian Grand Prix at the end of September, regaining the championship lead while Verstappen finished second despite starting from the back of the grid due to an engine penalty. Hamilton took his own engine in Turkey, losing it by 10 grid places, but was only able to come back to fifth place as Verstappen took second behind Bottas.
Hamilton comes back from the brink
But just as Mercedes looked set for a resurgence, Verstappen responded with back-to-back wins in the United States and Mexico. The victory in Mexico was particularly dominant and seemed to put Verstappen on the path to title glory, with the form guide suggesting he would make it a hat-trick in the next round in Brazil.
Verstappen’s chances only seemed to strengthen when the rear wing of Hamilton’s car failed a routine test after the session in Friday’s qualifying and he was sent to the back of the grid for the sprint race Saturday. But the disqualification seemed to start a fire under Hamilton, and armed with another fresh engine, he pushed his way through the field in both the sprint race and the grand prix to clinch a momentous victory on Sunday.
Chaos in Arabia
Hamilton gained momentum with a dominant victory in Qatar, taking him to the penultimate round in Saudi Arabia with the possibility of leveling the points with Verstappen if he wins the race ahead of Red Bull. This is exactly what happened, but the way the two pilots got there was almost unbelievable. In a two-man battle for the head in which Verstappen twice jumped Turn 2 trying to defend his position and was twice told to surrender the position, Hamilton ultimately came out on top, but only after another controversial collision.
This one was the weirder of the three this season, as Verstappen slowed down to let Hamilton pass only for the Mercedes driver to slow down behind him for fear of giving Verstappen the DRS advantage in the next straight. The collision damaged Hamilton’s front wing, and Verstappen was later blamed by flight attendants after it appeared he had braked just ahead of Hamilton.
The result left them level on points heading into the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but this remarkable season had yet one final twist in history.
An incredible finish
The first lap sparked controversy when Verstappen forced Hamilton to turn 6 to briefly take the lead, before Hamilton cut through turn 7 and rejoined the track in the first place. Red Bull was furious, calling on Hamilton to surrender the position, but the commissioners determined no investigation was necessary as any advantage Verstappen had gained by pushing Hamilton away was nullified by Hamilton skipping the second part of the chicane .
The Mercedes driver then extended his lead midway through the race, with Verstappen’s chances fading as he struggled to keep pace with Mercedes. Hamilton appeared to be chasing an eighth world title before things turned around on lap 53, when Nicholas Latifi crashed his Williams under the W hotel at turn 14.
The crash knocked out the safety car, allowing Verstappen to pit for new tires while Hamilton stayed on track. Red Bull had nothing to lose by making the late pit stop, while Hamilton risked giving up the lead when it was not yet clear whether the race would end under the Safety Car.
Latifi’s car was fully cleared on the penultimate lap, allowing the race to continue for a final lap. However, there were five overtaken cars on the route between Hamilton and Verstappen following the Verstappen pit stop and there was little time for the entire peloton to run according to normal car restart rules. security.
Under pressure from Red Bull team boss Christian Horner, race director Michael Masi agreed to let the five cars come undone while the rest of the field had to stay in position. The decision was hugely controversial and unprecedented, leading Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff to vent his frustration on Masi via the team’s FIA radio.
Despite Mercedes’ anger at the way the restart was handled, the race resumed with one lap remaining and Verstappen used his cooler tires to pass Hamilton for the lead in Turn 5. Hamilton fired back at Turn 6. , 7 and 8 but did not have quite the speed to attempt a move around the outside at Turn 9.
Verstappen won the race and, with it, his first world title. It remains to be seen whether the debate over the safety car period will end with the checkered flag, which means the longest season in F1 history may not be over yet.