After yesterday’s dramatic qualifying session, where Max Verstappen threw away an almost certain pole position lap with a crash at the final corner, the scene was set for a tense penultimate race of this incredible 2021 championship battle.
It was of course his title rival, Lewis Hamilton, who profited to take pole ahead of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas, with Verstappen looking to strike back from third and Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari looking to disrupt the party from a superb fourth.
After a chaotic Formula 2 sprint race earlier on in the day, where a scary startline crash between Theo Pourchaire and Enzo Fittipaldi led to both drivers visiting hospital and lengthy red flag delays, many were fearful for a chaotic start to the Grand Prix.
Fortunately this start was incident-free as the top four retained their places, despite a strong attack on Leclerc’s fourth place by the Red Bull of Sergio Perez.
The race then settled into a calm early rhythm, the top three nose-to-tail, with Leclerc and Perez battling for fourth well ahead of Lando Norris, best of the rest in sixth.
Early Safety Car Adds Strategy Dilemma
With the race going along quite smoothly, it was inevitable that the already infamous Turn 22 would soon catch a victim and Mick Schumacher’s Haas was the unfortunate culprit on Lap 10.
The two Mercedes, Leclerc and Perez immediately took the chance to pit. However Verstappen’s Red Bull decided to stay out and gain track position, albeit with a pit stop still to make.
Hamilton and Bottas remained P2 and P3 behind the Dutchman after the stops, with Esteban Ocon and Daniel Ricciardo, who also chose not to stop, rounding out the top five. Leclerc was now sixth, ahead of Pierre Gasly (who was yet to pit) and Perez in eighth.
Red Flag Adds Controversy
With the barrier repairs taking considerable time, the red flag was displayed by the FIA to allow them to ensure they proceed safely.
However being able to change tyres during a red flag meant that Red Bull’s decision to stay out paid immediate dividends, as Verstappen could now effectively take a “free pit stop” and take the lead.
After the repairs were completed, the newly reformed grid took a new standing start with this time Red Bull ahead of Mercedes.
The Start (Part 2)
So on Lap 15, the race effectively started again and would only last a few more corners before chaos reigned again.
Verstappen didn’t get the best launch, allowing Hamilton to get alongside and seemingly ahead into Turn 1, before the Red Bull came in late on the brakes and was squeezed off the track by the Mercedes.
Behind them however, Sergio Perez and Charles Leclerc got together, causing the other Red Bull to spin across the track onto the path of all the oncoming cars. As George Russell’s Williams slowed to avoid the Mexican, Nikita Mazepin came in unsighted and smashed into the back of the Brit, taking them both out of the race.
Then followed the first of several controversial FIA decisions. Verstappen, deemed to have overtaken Hamilton off the track, was then informed by Michael Masi to Red Bull that he must start behind Hamilton at the restart or he will be referred to the stewards.
The only problem being, Esteban Ocon’s Alpine had forced itself ahead of Hamilton before the red flag in all the melee! This therefore created a new grid for the third restart of Ocon, Hamilton, Verstappen, Ricciardo, Bottas, Gasly and Leclerc.
Third Time Lucky?
At the third time of asking, the race finally got away properly on Lap 17 and Verstappen made amends for his earlier poor start by launching away from P3 and sending one up the inside of both Ocon and Hamilton to lead the race.
Hamilton soon flew past Ocon when the cars came back down the pit straight to take P2, with Ocon, Ricciardo and Bottas making up the top five.
Gasly was now sixth, with Antonio Giovinazzi and Sebastian Vettel doing a great job in seventh and eighth, Yuki Tsunoda and Leclerc the remaining points scorers.
However on Lap 23, this changed again as Tsunoda and Vettel made contact through Turn 2, sending the Aston Martin into a spin and Tsunoda with a broken front wing. As this went on, the two Ferraris went side-by-side into Turn 1, with Sainz getting ahead of Leclerc for now P8.
The Virtual Safety Car was deployed to clear the mess as the race then entered its second half.
The Title Duel Is On
Vettel’s eventful race continued on Lap 27 as a feisty Kimi Raikkonen attempted to fight him round the outside leading to more contact and more debris strewn across the track.
This inevitably led to another Virtual Safety Car, which continued to neutralise the duel between Hamilton and Verstappen at the front. This period in fact lasted several laps, as the marshals attempted a full clean-up of the track from all the various incidents throughout the race.
Finally on Lap 33 the race resumed, crucially giving Verstappen a few extra laps of life for his medium tyres compared to Hamilton’s hards.
This lasted precisely 3 laps before another piece of Aston Martin landed on the track and led to a brief further Virtual Safety Car interruption.
As the green flags came back out, Hamilton was right on the back of Verstappen. This allowed Lewis to get a run into Turn 1 using DRS and as the two went side-by-side, predictably it ended in contact again.
The Most Dramatic Collision of All?
Then came the most confusing and bizarre few laps of the entire season. Verstappen was instructed by the FIA to let Hamilton pass, adjudged to have forced the Mercedes off the track.
Verstappen seemed to oblige, and slowed considerably to let Hamilton through. However, the Mercedes driver was clearly not informed of the situation and confused, stayed behind the Dutchman until he slowed so much that they collided, damaging both Hamilton’s front wing and the rear of the Red Bull.
Verstappen scampered away ahead, however soon slowed again to let the Brit pass into the final Turn 27. He let him through before immediately repassing going onto the main straight, quite cheekily.
However at this point, Verstappen then received a 5-second penalty, although before he got the message to confirm that, he let Hamilton past for good to finally assume the lead in a crazy sequence.
All Tied Into Abu Dhabi
At this point, the lead battle finally calmed down, with Hamilton cruising home to victory as Verstappen nursed his worn mediums and damaged car to finish P2. With Hamilton getting the extra point for fastest lap, this incredibly puts the two drivers level on points going into the Abu Dhabi season finale.
Behind them, Esteban Ocon was on his way to a brilliant podium, until out of the final corner of the final lap, Bottas used DRS to propel past across the line and crush the Frenchman and Alpine’s hearts to take away P3.
Ricciardo drove a solid, and actually uneventful race home to fifth ahead of Gasly, whilst Leclerc repassed teammate Sainz in the closing laps to claim seventh. Rounding out the top 10 were Giovinazzi in a rare points finish for Alfa Romeo, whilst Lando Norris recovered from earlier drama to take home a single point.
With all that drama, Netflix could probably have made an entire documentary on that one race alone. However, there is still one more race to finally decide the winner of the now-war between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton.