- Ross Ballot
Spectacle over sport: The 2021 Formula 1 WDC conclusion was a glorious battle and a hot mess
The 2021 Formula 1 season provided some of the most exciting, entertaining racing the sport has ever offered and its fans have ever seen. It also created some of the most controversial entertainment and, based on your team or driver of choice, frustrating competition ever televised. Any way you cut it, this year’s battle for the World Drivers’ Championship title was absolutely spectacular. And with the lights having gone out on the final race of the year and then dim on the season as we enter the winter break, we have time to reflect and consider everything that happened between Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen, Michael Masi, the FIA, and so on. For better and worse.
We entered the year knowing it would be a fight to the finish. Last year saw the battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen coming to a head, and we hit the ground running this season. Lewis took an early lead but Max got ahead and held the top spot for the better portion of the season. Much to the viewers’ enjoyment, there were fireworks nearly every weekend. Highlights included the massive crash and debate ridden fallout from Max’s scary high speed crash in Silverstone, the equally scary moment of Lewis having Max’s car land on his head at Monza, Lewis’ remarkable win from 10th in Brazil, the madness in Saudi Arabia with Max and Lewis colliding in the wake of Verstappen’s mid-track brake check, and so on. Start to finish, the season never had a dull moment, never a runaway favorite for the title. The two favorites flip-flopped multiple times and were somehow tied for the points lead going into the final race. A script the creators of Drive to Survive fantasized over. It felt like every week was imminent carnage and there was the possibility for chaos at every corner, both on and off track. The drama was destined to come down to the wire. And, oh, did it.
The buildup for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was amazing. Motorsports media capitalized on it, as it should have, and we all went into the weekend with bated breath. Fans on all sides were eager to see how things would play out. Practice and qualifying drew countless eyes with Max Verstappen ultimately qualifying on the pole. Tensions were high when the drivers lined up on Sunday afternoon.
The same can be said for emotions going into the race, and certainly into the first few corners after Crofty announced his famous “Lights out!” it looked like Lewis was going to hold onto the lead and take the title even through a potentially flubbed decision to not pit under yellow flags brought out by George Russell retiring his Williams on lap 27. Racing under green, Max was unable to close the eighteen second gap to any less than eleven seconds. It would have taken a heroic act or a misstep by Lewis to bring the cars closer for the end of the race, even if the projections did initially show Max’s striking distance for an overtake as being on lap 57 of 58. It just didn’t seem like Max had the pace.
And then on lap 53 Nicholas Latifi crashed, and everything changed. Latifi unharmed after the impact, the safety marshals initially stayed perched behind the barriers, not keen to get anywhere near the path of traffic passing the corner of question at 120+ MPH. No call was made initially to bring out either a virtual or actual safety car, but based on the Williams’ positioning in the direct line of fire it was inevitable. When the recovery did begin, it was frantic. Latifi’s car was lifted by crane and pulled off the track so quickly it surprised everyone. Including the stewards.
With one lap left in the grand prix, the running order on track was Lewis, the pack of lapped drivers, and then Max. It seemed as if the race would end under yellow flags but the FIA was adamant about not having that happen. With the announcement that the safety car was coming to an end as Lewis was pointing his Mercedes around turn 9, the stewards announced they would not let lapped cars by. A decision meaning Max would need to complete multiple overtakes in order to be able to attack Lewis for P1.
Then, suddenly, the stewards, or at least Masi, changed their minds. The camera then cut and without notice we saw Max alongside Lewis, edging the nose of his Red Bull Racing car name alongside the Mercedes almost to the point of passing. Those watching were baffled, as was Lewis. Outrage and frustration erupted immediately. As Max inched his car forward and prepared to pounce, the safety car ended and Lewis was stuck on his back foot. With newer tires and the advantage of the slipstream playing to his hand, Max passed Lewis on the final lap and held onto the lead to take home the win and secure the World Drivers’ Championship. On the Everyday Driver Discord, The Legend Continues voiced disdain for the rulings: “I am not at all a Lewis fan, but this wasn’t racing. This was being handed [the championship] on a platter. [...] The decision to let the lapped cars by sealed it.” That was that; Max won the race and title.
Amidst the chaos, Mercedes immediately challenged the ruling with race director Michael Masi. Despite taking more heat than ever before and being peaceful and impartial in every instance to date, Masi stunned with an undignified tone and a needlessly snarky, “It’s called a motor race” line for the ages. And yet, it felt wrong. Like selective enforcement. A pick-and-choose directive for entertainment and the pleasing of a certain group over integrity or truth. Think “police officer not giving a police officer they pulled over a ticket because they’re a police officer,” or “kid whose parents donate the most to the school getting played more in their sport of choice than those better than them,” or “not paying taxes thanks to a loophole and monetized manipulation.” Oops, last one is Musk, not Max. My mistake.
Rumor has it fans yelling at their televisions, computers, and phones could be heard from around the world and even from space. If my own house was any kind of indication, the final stint was an expletive-ridden rollercoaster. Formula 1’s fantastic announcers David Croft and Martin Brundle raised their voices higher and louder as the action peaked and flared. Everyday Driver’s Motorsports Discord channel was blowing up with messages as we picked apart the events as they unfolded. Even drivers who had retired from the race weighed in from the sidelines:
Though it must be noted that Russell is taking the seat of Valtteri Bottas alongside Hamilton at Mercedes next year and as such is likely biased in his opinions, his sentiment echoes that which so many of us felt. Not even necessarily for the outcome of the events on track, but the manner by which the FIA and Masi seemingly engineered things to unfold. Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff’s face echoed every non-Max fanboy’s reactions:
“I keep coming back to how much of a role the FIA played in deciding the outcome. Normally when it comes to sporting events you want the officials to play a supporting role (not the primary one which is what it felt like here),” EDD discord member Turtle Slayer said after the race. We want to see the racers duel it out for supremacy, but nobody wants to see it unfold in a way such that the drivers aren’t responsible for their own fate. In the last and deciding race of the 2021 season, fate was determined by Masi and the FIA. That’s a punch in the face not only for Lewis but for the fans who have listened to Masi become of increasing involvement as the HAM/VER battle has continued to grow closer and tenser and the sport has returned to the public eye with extreme force.
That the governing body had this much of a role in the outcome was a huge shock, especially considering so many of us expected a turn 1 crash that would decide the finishing order. The lack of contact between Max and Lewis in the finale was a deep surprise. But it was of zero surprise that Mercedes lodged two protests against Red Bull and the FIA inside the thirty minute window following the race’s conclusion. The first was for Max overtaking Lewis under the double yellow flags and a safety car. This objection was dismissed just hours later. The second aspect of the protest was for the disaster with the lapped cars and the final three laps. As per the FIA’s own rule book, if the decision is made to let lapped cars by under yellow flags, all lapped cars are given the chance to unlap. That just the few between Lewis and Max, those specific few cars, were allowed to do so, seemed manufactured and gave an essence of cherry-picking for the sake of drama. Cheese stated on Discord, “Should have done it [let the lapped cars unlap as soon as the safety car was out.” By afternoon’s end on the east coast, the FIA had dismissed both of Mercedes’ protests. Mercedes has filed an appeal, but based on the way the in-race rulings and those following shortly thereafter went, we can only assume this too will be thrown out the window in the sake of spectacle over sport. It’s a sentiment that’s weighed on fans of the sport since the second the call was made on this fateful day.
None of this is meant to disregard the other factors at play. The day’s unsung hero was Sergio Perez who did a magical job of holding up Lewis Hamilton while fighting to retain first place as Max Verstappen flew around the track to catch up behind the tangoing two. For a driver who as of this race last year had no confirmed seat for the 2021 season, Checo earned his worth and displayed the best driving of the race by a country mile. Meanwhile, Mercedes again failed on strategy and played directly into Red Bull’s hand. And yet, though it should have been the drivers who were responsible for the ultimate decision of the World Drivers’ Championship, it simply wasn’t.
With the lights out on the 2021 season, we look to 2022 and the new regulations, cars, and driver lineups that will undoubtedly shake things up for another amazing season of racing. If it’s anything like this year’s, it’ll be a hell of a good time for the fans. Especially if the FIA takes notes from the season finale’s kerfuffle. It’s been amazing watching Formula 1 and seeing it grow with a new fan base thanks to Netflix, and now, with more eyes on the sport than it has enjoyed in ten years, the FIA owes the fans the duty of sorting out its governing and ruling antics. I and many others emerged from 2021’s season-defining race with an unsettled, “something doesn’t feel right” sensation. Discord participant Turtle Slayer agreed, asking “Anyone else have a bad taste in their mouth”? He went on to say, “They [the FIA] put Max right behind Lewis for drama sake.”
The feeling was furthered by Max’s father donning a 2021 championship sweatshirt seconds after the checkered flag dropped, which only worsened Max’s soulless insulting of Lewis and Lewis’ father earlier in the weekend. And it’s even worse when you dig deeper and consider Max’s “joke” about his “best purchase” being his girlfriend. Ugly on all fronts. There’s always drama in Formula 1, but the season finale felt more like a reality TV show with a loose script than it did televised motorsports. Good versus evil. Villain versus hero. And in the wake of one of the most controversial moments in Formula 1 history, the fans of honest racing lost out. As did Lewis. The race now in the past, we’re left not feeling that Max Verstappen is the world’s best racing driver, but rather that whose team had better strategy and who better benefited the FIA’s extremely controversial rulings.
As the sun set on December 12, 2021 the world had a new standing Formula 1 champion with Max Verstappen holding the crown. From start to finish, it was a breathtaking, thrilling year of racing in the world’s premiere motorsport. What will next year bring? As winter sets on the northern hemisphere and we go into F1 hibernation, all eyes are on the 2022 season. And now, we debate. Er, wait. And now we wait… and debate… and speculate. The world’s greatest racing series continues to amaze, and hopefully next season the deciding factor is the drivers themselves, nobody or nothing else. But don't hold your breath. In Formula 1, anything can happen.