RACE DEBRIEF

    What a season we were treated to in 2021, as Max Verstappen claimed his maiden World Championship after an intense fight with his Mercedes rival Lewis Hamilton. But there was plenty going on up and down the F1 grid. Here are eight reasons we think 2021 will go down as one of the all-time great Formula 1 seasons.

    1. A title fight for the ages – and a new champion crowned

    Have we witnessed the dawn of one of F1’s iconic rivalries, on the scale of Senna vs Prost or Schumacher vs Hakkinen? By the evidence of 2021, it would appear so, as Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton fought tooth-and-nail to emerge on top – Verstappen attempting to take his maiden title, and the first for a Dutch driver, while Hamilton was going after a record eighth championship.

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    True, it wasn’t always pretty to watch the pair’s duel, which reached its nadir in a bad-tempered Saudi Arabian showdown. But there seems little doubt that images like Verstappen’s Red Bull parked atop Hamilton’s Mercedes at Monza will enter the canon of iconic moments in the sport’s history – while both racers proved worthy adversaries for each other across the year, Verstappen and Hamilton driving a step above the rest for much of the season.

    2. Mercedes’ stronghold on the turbo-hybrid era was broken

    Mercedes headed into 2021 on a run of seven double championship wins, a phenomenal record stretching back to the change of engine formula in 2014. Straight out of the box, though, the Silver Arrows looked on the back foot, their new W12 floundering in pre-season testing, while the Red Bull RB16B looked a poised, title-threatening machine.

    That Mercedes came away from the season with an eighth constructors’ title was testament to an astounding recovery by the team, one which hinged on a Silverstone update that arguably gave them the superior car once again. But nonetheless, Verstappen claiming the drivers’ title will be seen by many as a symbolic breaking of the Mercedes hegemony in the turbo-hybrid era, after years of trying from both Red Bull and Ferrari.

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    2021 Season Montage: A battle for the ages

    3. It was a record-breaking season

    2021 – the longest season in F1 history – witnessed some historic records getting toppled, on top of Mercedes’ record-extending eighth constructors' title win.

    Hamilton become the first driver in F1 history to make it to a century of both pole positions (taking his 100th in Spain) and wins (claiming #100 in Russia) – with the Briton ending the season with 103 of both.

    Hamilton also joined Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas as the most frequent podium trio in the sport’s history, beating the previous record of 14 in Portimao, while Saudi Arabia was the triumvirate’s 20th shared rostrum. Verstappen also took the record for most podiums in a season with his 18th of the year in Abu Dhabi.

    That race was also the 349th and final one of Kimi Raikkonen, the Finn bowing out of the sport after extending the record for most Grand Prix starts.

    READ MORE: Behind the scenes at Alfa Romeo’s spectacular Kimi Raikkonen send-off

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    Verstappen, Hamilton and Bottas have now shared the podium 20 times

    4. We witnessed some 'instant classic' races

    We got to watch some brilliant races in 2021, and not only when Hamilton and Verstappen were going at each other – although there was plenty of that going on too.

    From a frantic encounter in Baku – where both Verstappen and Hamilton failed to score after tyre drama for the former, and ‘brake magic’ drama for the latter – to an action-packed Italian Grand Prix to an epic race in Russia, 2021 delivered races that seem set to go down in F1 lore as the years roll by.

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    Meanwhile, 2021 would also see the debut of the F1 Sprint format at Silverstone, Monza and Interlagos, all three events proving decisive in the outcome of the weekend – and ensuring a carnival-like atmosphere at the Friday qualifying session, and the fast-paced Sprint itself on Saturday.

    Race Highlights: 2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

    5. The epic Saudi Arabia track debuted

    2021 witnessed the debut on the calendar of the stunning Jeddah Corniche Circuit, and the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. The track proved to be a hit with most of the drivers, who revelled in the juxtaposition of Suzuka-like speeds with Monaco-esque barriers looming on all sides.

    F1 will be back at the track in early 2022, while this season also saw the return of Zandvoort after a 36-year hiatus – Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner describing the electric atmosphere at the Dutch venue as “like being in a nightclub for three days” – as well as taking an unexpected-but-welcome visit to Qatar’s Losail International Circuit, with the country duly signed up to host F1 on a 10-year deal from 2023 as well.

    READ MORE: ‘It’s beautiful to drive’ – The F1 drivers give their verdict on the Jeddah Corniche Circuit

    6. F1 gained a new winner

    It always warms the cockles to see a new winner emerge in Formula 1 – and Esteban Ocon became the 111th and newest with a fine display at the Hungaroring, benefitting from Bottas skittling a number of frontrunners at the start to take the lead, before holding off the race-long pressure of four-time champion Sebastian Vettel to take his, and Alpine’s, maiden victory.

    That was helped in large part by team mate Fernando Alonso’s staunch defence of Hamilton – the Spaniard having returned to F1 in 2021 after a two-year break, and showing by season’s end that he’d lost none of the Alonso magic.

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    Race Highlights: 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix

    7. There were some standout underdog performances

    Lando Norris came super close to being the 112th Grand Prix victor after an extraordinary display from the British youngster in Sochi, Norris taking a shock pole position and leading most of the Russian Grand Prix only to slide off track as rain fell in the closing stages, ultimately finishing a disconsolate seventh.

    That was one of only a handful of impressive underdog showings in 2021, Norris also forming part of another as McLaren took a 1-2 in the Italian Grand Prix, with Daniel Ricciardo claiming his first victory since Monaco 2018.

    READ MORE: ‘No one cracked’ – Ricciardo reveals the moment in 2021 when he realised McLaren were ‘a bunch of winners’

    Elsewhere, the likes of Alonso, Pierre Gasly and Vettel all claimed podiums too, while Norris and Carlos Sainz would take an impressive four rostrums each across the year.

    In total, 13 drivers on the grid would make the podium in 2021, the same number as 2020 – although admittedly some way shy of the ultimate record of 18 in 1982 – while eight teams made the rostrum in 2021, the first time that’s happened since 2009.

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    McLaren scored a famous 1-2 in Monza

    Perhaps the ultimate underdog performance of 2021 deserves its own entry, however, to whit…

    8. We saw the start of a Williams renaissance (hopefully)

    George Russell has punched above his weight a number of times since joining Williams in 2019 – but 2021 really saw the Briton step into the limelight.

    Perhaps the greatest underdog performance of the year was Russell’s P2 on the grid in Spa – a lap that will doubtless go down in the sport’s annals, and which 2009 champ Jenson Button described as one of the best he’d ever seen – while his podium in the foreshortened race was Williams’ first since 2017.

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    2021 Belgian GP Qualifying: Onboard for George Russell’s brilliant P2 lap

    At the previous race in Hungary, team mate Nicholas Latifi and Russell had taken the team’s first points since the 2019 German Grand Prix – Williams ultimately finishing P8 in the constructors’ standings this year, their best finish since 2017 – while Russell’s P8 in qualifying at the Silverstone Sprint was also a moment of heart-pounding brilliance.

    READ MORE: 'Without Frank, I wouldn’t be here' – Bottas, Russell, Stroll and Latifi remember former boss Sir Frank Williams in Jeddah

    Poignantly, the team’s founder Sir Frank Williams left us before the season reached its conclusion, passing away on November 28, aged 79. But he would have been proud to see the massive upswing in the team’s performance after seasons of struggle – with Alex Albon set to replace the Mercedes-bound Russell to help continue the form in 2022, when F1 moves to its new era of regulations.