One race to go – but at the end of a blockbuster season, who will be crowned champion in Abu Dhabi?
This is it. After 21 races and a maximum of 555 points available, Formula 1 arrives at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina Circuit for the final race of an epic season with Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen locked on the same number of points, the first time that's happened to two title protagonists in 47 years. We have ourselves a one-race shoot-out to decide one of the most fiercely contested championships in F1 history…
The tension has been building this season and really ramped up in the last few events, as Hamilton won three races on the bounce – including a wonder drive to victory in Brazil – to hunt down Verstappen's championship lead.
On track, there have been battles aplenty. And it’s been like that from the very first race, too, when Hamilton and Verstappen went head-to-head for victory in Bahrain, with Hamilton coming out on top. They got a little too close for comfort next time out in Imola – and then got way too close at Silverstone with Hamilton getting a penalty. Another carbon fibre joust followed in Italy and this time, Verstappen was penalised.
They’ve both had engine penalties, too – one for Verstappen, two for Hamilton. They’ve also excelled at tracks where the rival car has done well in years gone by – Red Bull breaking the Mercedes stranglehold at venues like Paul Ricard and Austin while Mercedes have been much stronger at previous Red Bull favourites Hungary and Brazil.
They’ve both enjoyed runs at the top, the Mercedes man having the edge early on, before Verstappen went on a stunning run of five wins in six races, before Hamilton moved into the ascendancy in the last three races, two of which were brand new venues for F1.
After years of relative predictability, 2021 has been difficult to call. It’s been a breath of fresh air of F1.
Verstappen and Hamilton have shown no signs of cracking when in front of a camera this year, and even after one of the tensest races in living memory last time out in Saudi Arabia, they were giving little away. Verstappen defended himself robustly after getting two time penalties and three requests to give places back during the race in Jeddah.
Hamilton chose his words carefully when speaking about his rival and remained cool, calm and collected, despite believing the Red Bull driver had been “over the limit” of what is permissible in wheel-to-wheel racing.
When they faced the media on Thursday in Abu Dhabi, first alongside each other in the FIA Press Conference and then in the TV pen, again, neither were giving anything away. Hamilton came across as very relaxed, while Verstappen was his strong, confident self.
When asked if he had any concerns the title might not be won fairly, Hamilton said: “No, honestly I don’t give it any energy. I’m here to do the best job I can with this incredible team. We never thought that we’d be neck and neck going into the last race, we’ve had an amazing recovery collectively as a team, we’ve been in a great position these last few races. We go full steam ahead with that same focus and we don’t waste energy on things that are out of our control.”
The line of questioning to Verstappen focused on his driving in Saudi Arabia, but while the Dutchman wasn’t allowing himself to get rattled, he had no qualms fighting his corner. “Well clearly things don’t apply for everyone because the things I did in terms of defending, two other guys also did and they didn’t get a mention or penalty,” he said. “I don’t understand as I thought I was just racing hard. What happened for me didn’t deserve any penalty and clearly the other two people who did it they didn’t get one but clearly it’s only me that gets it. Of course fighting at the front, people are a bit more critical but for me I don’t understand.”
The beauty of this title decider is that it’s a straight fight. Whoever finishes ahead will become champion. Should neither score, Verstappen would take the title by virtue of having won more races. In doing so, he would mark the changing of the guard, ending the Lewis Hamilton-Mercedes era. But sample defeat and he will have been pipped to the post by one of the grittiest-ever performances, in what would still be his best-ever season.
Before last year, Mercedes arrived on Yas Island as the overwhelming favourites. Why? Because they had won every race there since the turbo-hybrid era began. But they were beaten on pure performance by Red Bull in 2020, which spices things up nicely heading into this year’s decider.
You can add to that some significant track changes, including a faster run to the hairpin and the reprofiling of several corners to open them up, increase entry speeds and hopefully boost overtaking opportunities.
Whoever’s name is etched on that trophy come the culmination of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will deserve it. Whoever loses out has a right to feel hard done by. But there can be only one winner. And over the course of the next few days, we will see who is most likely to take that mantle before one final duel as dusk falls on Sunday.
This will be the stuff of legend, the ultimate Hollywood movie script, the greatest sporting showdown of the year. After the year we’ve had, F1 is set for the blockbuster ending it deserves.