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Max Verstappen wins the F1 title in Abu Dhabi thriller
The Red Bull Racing Honda star stands on top of the world, capping a brilliant season with an incredible last-gasp win in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Formula One world champion. Four words that separate the great from the merely very, very good in the highest-profile motorsport category on the planet. Four words that will act as a permanent prefix to Max Verstappen's name after the Red Bull Racing Honda driver secured the 2021 drivers' championship with a brilliant win at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday.
Verstappen took the lead from long-time race leader Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) with a last-lap pass at Turn 5, after a late-race safety car caused by a crash for Nicholas Latifi (Williams) bunched up the field. He then streaked away to win the most dramatic of season finales to cap a truly extraordinary F1 season.
The 24-year-old won his first title in his seventh F1 campaign, emerging victorious after a ferocious 22-race fight with reigning champion Hamilton. This head-to-head battle produced a season for the ages. By the end of it, after Verstappen took 10 victories, 10 pole positions and 18 podium finishes, the Dutchman becomes Red Bull's second world champion, after Sebastian Vettel annexed the title for four straight years from 2010-13.
Red Bull's title ends Mercedes' seven-year run that coincides with the introduction of the 1.6-litre V6 turbo hybrid era from 2014, while Verstappen becomes the first-ever Dutch world champion and the 34th world champion in the history of the sport dating back to 1950.
"It's unbelievable," Verstappen said.
"The whole race I kept fighting and of course that opportunity in the last lap… it's incredible. It's insane. These guys here, my team, Honda… they deserve it. I love them so much. This year has been incredible."
I hope we can do this for 10-15 years together. There's no reason to change ever
"To my team, I think they know that I love them, and I hope we can do this for 10-15 years together. There's no reason to change ever. I want to stay with them for the rest of my life."
It's the first title for Honda since Ayrton Senna won the 1991 crown and comes in the engine manufacturers' final race with the team.
A fitting finale
For most of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, it looked like Verstappen's dreams of becoming an F1 world champion would be cruelly denied at the final hurdle.
Starting with the championship lead and from pole at a Grand Prix where the pole-sitter had won for the past six years, Verstappen was immediately on his back foot when Hamilton led into the first corner. The Briton retained his advantage after leaving the circuit at the end of the back straight on Lap 1 as Verstappen immediately attacked.
Mercedes looked to have the race under control no matter what strategic plays Red Bull made, with Verstappen's team-mate Sergio Pérez doing a superb job to jump to third place on Lap 1. Then he made life difficult for Hamilton on Lap 20 after Hamilton had made his first pit stop. His superb defending allowed Verstappen to narrow the gap and see the Dutchman describe the Mexican driver as "a legend" over the team radio.
Lewis is an amazing driver and an amazing competitor, and they made it really hard for us
The race continued matter-of-factly until Antonio Giovinazzi's Alfa Romeo ground to a halt on Lap 36 of 58, causing a virtual safety car period where Verstappen pitted for new tyres as Hamilton elected to stay out. Try as he might, Verstappen could make only marginal inroads to Hamilton's 17-second lead, and the title looked to be headed Mercedes' way.
Then came the critical moment, when Latifi strayed off-line and clouted the wall at Turn 14 on Lap 53, prompting a full safety car period that saw Verstappen pit for new tyres and, crucially, Hamilton stay out. Once the debris was cleared, just one racing lap remained, with Hamilton ahead but Verstappen stalking him on fresher rubber.
Verstappen made a brilliant pass on Hamilton at the Turn 5 hairpin, defended for all he was worth into the Turn 6-7 chicane, and repelled Hamilton's final attempt into Turn 9. Then he careered away to win by 2.256s – remarkably, it was the only lap the Dutchman led for the entire race.
As a finish to arguably the most extraordinary F1 season we've ever seen, it seemed almost appropriate.
What they said
Verstappen's face post-race was a mixture of elation, exhaustion and seeming disbelief that his biggest career goal had been realised, and in the manner that it had.
"My goal when I was little was to become a Formula One driver, and you hope for wins, to be on the podium when they play the national anthem, you hope they play yours," he reflected.
"So when you stand there, and they tell you 'you are the world champion', it's something incredible.
"With my dad [former F1 driver Jos Verstappen], all the things come back through your mind when you spend the time together, travelling for that goal. You're here together, and everything comes together in the last lap. It's insane."
Throughout the whole race, I tried to keep pushing, tried to keep believing even though it didn't look like happening. Sometimes miracles happen
Verstappen's composure was a feature of his first world championship tilt, his speed matched only by his unwavering pragmatism, even as his biggest career goal came within touching distance.
"Of course, you are nervous for today, but at the end of the day, it's just another race where you want to do well," he said.
"Throughout the whole race, I tried to keep pushing, tried to keep believing even though it didn't look like happening. Sometimes miracles happen.
"Lewis is an amazing driver and an amazing competitor, and they made it really hard for us. For sure, next year we'll come back and try to do it all over again.
"I've lost my voice! But it's amazing, obviously."
Red Bull Racing Honda team principal Christian Horner, his Verstappen world championship t-shirt soaked in celebratory champagne, simply shook his head. "That just about sums up this year," Horner said.
"It was going to need something from the racing gods in the last 10 laps, and thank you to Nicholas Latifi with the safety car.
This championship came down to the final lap, and it was down to Max to make it happen
"It's been an insane competition. All credit to Lewis, he's been a phenomenal opponent all year, and that's what makes it so valuable to win this.
"This championship came down to the final lap, and it was down to Max to make it happen. A stroke of good fortune for us with the safety car, and we made it work."
Checo plays the team game perfectly
The final standings of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will have Pérez as a non-finisher for only the third time all year, but the Mexican driver did a sterling job as Red Bull sealed second place in the constructors' standings.
Pérez provided a tow to Verstappen on Saturday in qualifying that helped the Dutchman take an emphatic pole position and then leapt up to third place on the opening lap as he passed the McLaren of Lando Norris.
He then played a key part in getting Verstappen back on terms mid-race and looked like a strong chance of a sixth podium finish of the year before pulling into the pits to retire with three laps to go as the field circulated behind the safety car.
Pérez equalled his 2020 finishing position of fourth in his first season with the team, where he won his second career Grand Prix in Azerbaijan.
"It's my team, and at the end of the day, it was critical because Hamilton had the race under control," Pérez said of his crucial mid-race cameo.
"It would have made his race easier. I was on old tyres, and I didn't think there was much I could do to hold him back, but we managed to make him lose a couple of seconds, and I think that changed the race, and Max was able to challenge him with the strategy. It worked out at the end."
Tsunoda saves the best for last
Tsunoda scored 32 points in his rookie season and finished 14th in the standings, and out-qualified team-mate Pierre Gasly for the first time this season at Yas Marina.
Gasly didn't make the top 10 in qualifying for just the fourth time all season, but ran a marathon first stint of the race on hard tyres to get himself back into contention. The Frenchman eventually finished fifth, less than a second behind Tsunoda, and wrapped up an outstanding season of consistency by finishing ninth overall on 110 points.
The double-points finish of 22 points represented AlphaTauri's best single-race haul of the year and saw the team finish sixth in the constructors' standings, matching its previous best finish (as Scuderia Toro Rosso) in 2008 and 2019.
For some, the Abu Dhabi season finale was goodbye to their current teams; for others, it was a goodbye to F1, full stop.
In the former camp were Valtteri Bottas (moving from Mercedes to Alfa Romeo for 2022) and George Russell (from Williams to Mercedes to replace Bottas), while Kimi Räikkönen finished a 20-year F1 career with Alfa Romeo as the most experienced driver in F1 history, the high point being his 2007 world title with Ferrari. Räikkönen's team-mate, Giovinazzi, put a full stop to his 62-race F1 foray before heading to Formula E for 2022.
What's next? This week, the post-season Abu Dhabi test takes place on December 14-15 before a well-earned break. Then comes 2022 pre-season testing in Barcelona on March 20 next year.