Formula 1 2021 Season Review: The greatest title fight ever?

I’ve just about caught my breath and had a chance to reflect on what was an unbelievable final race to an absolutely bonkers Formula 1 season. I will do my best to review the controversy and drama of Abu Dhabi, whilst also reflecting on the carnage that the other 21 races conjured up.

The Controversy

Latifi’s crash threw the race and the title battle into overdrive. Image: F1

Let’s start at the end and discuss the big and final talking point of the 2021 season – the final five laps of the Abu Dhabi GP. Sir Lewis Hamilton was undoubtedly on track to win his 8th world championship in dominant style before Nicholas Latifi’s crash brought out the Safety Car on Lap 54.

At this point, it didn’t look as if we’d get any more running due to the awkward area of the track where Latifi binned in, and the amount of debris on track. Red Bull rightly made use of a free pit-stop to pit both Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez onto soft tyres. Verstappen re-joined the track still in P2, but now with four lapped drivers between himself and Hamilton.

The message that was initially relayed was that the lapped cars would not be allowed to un-lap themselves. This was until Race Director, Michael Masi, decided half way into Lap 57 that four drivers were going to be allowed to overtake the safety car and un-lap themselves.

This call, from one individual, will go down as one of the most contentious decisions in the history of the sport. I don’t want to delve deep into analysing this decision, as there are many other things from the season worthy of mention in this season review. And you’ve probably heard a million different opinions already.

But what I will say is the biggest shame for me is that the championship was decided off-track by a contentious call. This was the one result I was hoping wouldn’t happen. Despite not being a Hamilton fan, it felt hollow and unjust. It is so disappointing that the immediate aftermath and likely, the longer-term reflection on the 2021 season will be focused on a decision by the FIA. That’s the bit I’m struggling to take.

The entire F1 fan base should be reflecting on how lucky we’ve been to see two fantastic drivers engage in a relentless, season-long duel filled with on track battles and brilliant races. And still, it’s difficult to do this when one driver has been unfairly robbed of a championship because the sport’s governing body didn’t follow their own rules.

The Stewards and FIA

Race director Michael Masi has been heavily criticised for his conduct in 2021

I think Abu Dhabi highlighted just how much of a mess the sport is in at the moment in terms of the consistent application of the rules. Albeit particularly poor in 2021, the issue of poor stewarding and incompetency from the FIA isn’t exclusive to this year – its been a problem in recent seasons and unfortunately, it had a major impact in the championship decider.

If I can take one positive from all of this is that I think Masi will rightly lose his job in all the aftermath that is due to follow. Hopefully, we can arrive at a defined and clear system of rules that are consistently applied. Just like football, there will always be some element of subjectivity in the application of rules. But at present, it feels like the rules lead to too many opinionated decisions. And when you have stewards changing every race, this doubles the issue.

Formula 1 is the pinnacle of motorsport. We need to know why it’s okay for some drivers to force another off the track and get away with it whilst others are penalised. There needs to be more consistency and clarity for both fans and more importantly the teams and drivers on what they can and cannot do.

The season

Hamilton and Verstappen were head and shoulders ahead of the chasing pack in 2021

Despite the shenanigans of the final race, I still feel lucky to have watched the 2021 season unfold. From the get-go in Bahrain, it looked like Red Bull had a car capable of taking the fight to Mercedes and a driver capable of ending Hamilton’s dominant reign.  

For me, the title fight had everything – two brilliant drivers, two operationally excellent teams, on-track battles, strategy dilemmas, collisions, off-track antics and close, hard racing.

Looking back, I can’t actually think of many bad races. Even tracks like Sochi and Paul Richard which have traditionally been poor, served up absolute crackers in 2021. Not to forget as well – Bahrain, Budapest, Baku, Silverstone, and others which were an absolute pleasure to watch.

Behind the top two (usually very far behind), the rest of the pack played their part in putting on a brilliant season of racing. Watching Lando Norris get amongst the big boys particularly in the first half of the season was great. Carlos Sainz also impressed, surprisingly beating his teammate Charles Leclerc in the driver’s standings.

Pierre Gasly is also worthy of a mention for another impressive season at Alpha Tauri. And it was great to see Alonso back on the grid, putting in consistent strong performances to prove he’s still got it.

The future

Despite the events of the last week, I think Formula 1 in many ways is in a great place at the moment. The sport will have inevitably lost some fans after Abu Dhabi, but it has also gained many in 2021. It needs to ensure it hangs onto these by creating defined rules and consistently applying these fairly in races.

Looking ahead to next season, weirdly, I hope the big regulation changes don’t spice things up too much. The pessimist in me is worried that Mercedes will turn up in Bahrain half a second clear of the pack just like 2014. And the optimist believes Red Bull will produce a car that is a worthy challenger again. If the latter transpires, we’re in for another barnstormer in 2022 and I cannot wait.

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