Formula 1

Lewis Hamilton vs Max Verstappen, Toto Wolff and Christian Horner at war: F1’s greatest season


A season for the ages, with a finale to be debated.

Opinions on what transpired at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix have ranged from lauding the ‘Miracle at the Yas Marina’ to lamenting the most farcical finish to an F1 season the sport has ever endured – with more realistic conclusion lying somewhere in-between.

Regardless, what can’t be debated is 2021 has been a year that has showcased the sport, mostly for the right reasons, occasionally for the wrong, and attracted a new audience of captivated viewers thanks to Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen’s epic title battle.

New technical regulations will come in for 2022 in a bid to make racing more competitive, and the effects of that concept will make for some intriguing analysis.

However, whatever happens in the next 12 months, will need to be exhilarating, if not borderline sensational, to match what transpired in the 12 before.

And here’s why…

Max Verstappen vs Lewis Hamilton







The 2021 title battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen had it all – but where does it rank among the best F1 seasons ever?
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Image:

Formula 1 via Getty Images)

The controversy from the 22nd and finale race of the season in Abu Dhabi should not deter from the quality this pairing produced in the 21 that preceded it.

Not since 2012 had there been a scenario where a title race between two drivers from opposing teams went to wire, and never before, Prost v Senna and Schumacher v Hill all included, had there been one laced with such excellence.

In Verstappen, you had the young protege, the fearless warrior, whose composure under extreme pressure – not to mention defiance during overtaking manoeuvres – defied his tender age.

In Hamilton, you had the master, the all-time great whose sheer refusal to let up his hold on the sport showcased a quality to produce with his back to the wall that few in F1 have ever matched.

All year the pair traded blows, not always metaphorically, with their much-publicised collisions in Silverstone and Monza adding ill-feeling to a rivalry that was already heated.

Either would have been a worthy champion. And there will almost certainly be more titles – for both.

Wolff and Horner at war

Behind every supreme driver rivalry – are two warring team bosses constantly sniping and stirring.

Apparently.

If the feud between Verstappen and Hamilton was an inevitable consequence of their on-track battle for supremacy, then with Christian Horner and Toto Wolff, it was dam-sure personal.

From 2010-2013, Red Bull reigned via Sebastian Vettel’s four straight titles. For the seven years that followed, courtesy of Hamilton and in 2016 Nico Rosberg, Mercedes didn’t just dominate the opposition, they destroyed them.

The respective desires to regain or hold on to superiority frequently spilled over, to the point where no race was complete without one of the team bosses submitting a complaint or at least hinting at favouritism towards the enemy.






Relations were strained between Toto Wolff and Christian Horner all year long

Over the course of the year, Horner called Wolff a “control freak”, leading the Austrian to label him a “windbag who always wants to be on camera”.

Horner would later fire back with “The more Toto gets wound up, the more fun it becomes,” a comment Wolff described as “worrying”.

The verbal sparring, as well as the efforts of both to dictate disciplinary punishments to Michael Masi all season long, continued right through to Abu Dhabi.

To Horner’s credit, in the aftermath of the drama he did seek out Wolff in a bid to shake his hand, albeit unsuccessfully.

And given Wolff’s current mood, he may be best served leaving it a while yet.

A new sprint to the finish

2021 saw the introduction of Saturday Sprint Races at Silverstone, Monza, and Brazil.

The jury was very much out on the concept, and remains adjourned.

Max Verstappen won the inaugural 100km dash, with Valtteri Bottas prevailing in the latter two, and the three events did add a new dimension to the standard practice, qualifying, race weekend format.

They made for curious, if not entirely captivating viewing, but at the Sao Paulo leg in particular, at a stage when every point for Verstappen and Hamilton was critical, the race took on extra meaning.

And if you weren’t completely sold on the concept, then better get open-minded, there’s more of them to come next year.

‘Mr Saturday’ shines at Spa

If George Russell’s seat at Mercedes for 2022 wasn’t already sorted when he arrived in Belgium, then it was sure as hell cemented by the time he left.

Already touted as the man to replace Bottas at the ‘Silver Arrows’, he produced one of the great qualifying displays in an essentially uncompetitive Williams car.






Second-placed George Russell celebrates on the podium in Belgium

In teeming rain, Russell notched a sensational lap in Q3 at Spa and was just seconds from a memorable pole position when Verstappen spoilt the fun at the 11th hour.

Still, the second place finish inadvertently led to a first ever podium for the man dubbed ‘Mr Saturday’, when the adverse weather continued into Sunday, meaning only two safety-car led laps were possible.

Many questioned why the race started at all, but of course, in F1 it’s imperative rules regarding safety cars are followed.

Isn’t it?

McLaren’s memorable one-two in Monza

If the crash between Hamilton and Verstappen, which left the British driver owing his life to his halo, cast a dark cloud over Monza, then in the form of McLaren plenty of sun rays shone through it.

Not since 2010, when Hamilton led home Jenson Button in Canada, had the British team notched a one-two Grand Prix finish. Difficult days had followed since, although fourth-placed in the 2020 Constructors’ race represented something of a revival.







Daniel Ricciardo celebrates after winning the Italian Grand Prix
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NurPhoto/PA Images)

In Italy though, the charismatic pairing of Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris produced their finest hour for a decade.

After a chaotic race, it was the Australian who ended a three-year win drought for himself – and a nine-year drought for the team – and to glorify the occasion Norris took second.

The young British driver was later cruelly denied a win of his own when events, and weather, conspired against him in Russia, but the sight of him and Ricciardo being held aloft by McLaren staff in Italy remains one of the defining images of the season.

A surreal Sunday in Saudi Arabia

Question marks remain over F1’s willingness to embrace Saudi Arabia as a venue, and given the country’s human rights issues, justifiably so.

But in terms of how the inaugural night race at the Jeddah Street Circuit went from a race point of view, well, there’s probably not a word to justify the carnage.






Mick Schumacher crashes in Saudi Arabia, which signalled the start of a crazy race

A huge crash for Haas driver Mick Schumacher signified a race which would go onto produce one safety car period, two red flags, and four virtual safety car stints.

In the meantime, the lead between Hamilton and Verstappen changed so many times, with the Dutchman at one point handed a five-second penalty. It almost became easier to turn the coverage off and check for the official classification later.

The red flags and frequent stoppages meant the race rumbled on considerably longer than the scheduled finish, and by the time all was said and done, even the most casual of F1 watchers would have been head fried.

The finale

If nothing else, it was five minutes in F1 which will be talked about for decades to come.

A title race that had ebbed and flowed seemed certain to go Lewis Hamilton’s way before a crash to Williams driver Nicholas Latifi prompted chaos – and the safety car procedure, or more specifically the sudden rule-change instructed by FIA race director Masi that followed, left an uneasy feeling.

As Verstappen celebrated his maiden title, Mercedes were preparing a protest, one perhaps inevitably later thrown out given the FIA were marking their own homework.






Max Verstappen and Red Bull celebrate in Abu Dhabi after their title win

Masi’s actions undoubtedly helped create an astonishing finale, and in some ways it was fitting that the title was still in the balance right up until the final corner of the final Grand Prix.

But it has also potentially soured the reputation of F1, and brought ridicule in some quarters from those mocking a manufactured finish, drawing instant comparisons to WWE.

The debate continues to rage, and whilst many F1 pundits and drivers have been seemingly shy on saying the obvious, it’s a scenario that should never have been allowed to happen.

Then again, the fact that the world is talking about F1 in the first place, as opposed to labelling it a mundane sport, is perhaps a sign of just how much it’s captivated everyone in 2021.

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