In the most dramatic finish to one of the most dramatic Formula One seasons in years, Max Verstappen was crowned 2021 Formula One world champion after overtaking Lewis Hamilton on the final lap.

“It’s insane. I don’t know what to say. I’m so pleased for the team and for all these guys. I love working with them so much,” Verstappen said afterwards.

“Firstly, a big congratulations to Max and his team. I think we did an amazing job this year, we worked so hard. We gave it everything, we never gave up and that’s the most important thing,” said an emotional-looking Hamilton post race.

In a fittingly thrilling race, Hamilton looked set to win in Abu Dhabi before a late safety car and decision from the race director changed everything

Initially, the decision was made lapped cars wouldn’t overtake only for the decision to be changed and the five cars between Hamilton and Verstappenwere ordered to overtake the Safety Car, which handed the Dutchman the chance he thought he had lost. Afterwards, Mercedes protested the handling of the situation. That protest was rejected, to which Mercedes lodged an intention to appeal.

George Russell, who will be Hamilton’s teammate at Mercedes next season, made his feelings clear afterwards.

That left the championship to be decided with one lap left and both challengers at the front. Hamilton did his best to hold Verstappen at bay but eventually, the Dutchman’s fresher tires paid off as he overtook Hamilton to seal the race win and his first drivers’ championship in the most remarkable finale.

Race drama

Hamilton got the better start than Verstappen, taking the lead off the Dutchman from the first corner. Verstappen nearly took it back just a few corners later, but Hamilton retained top spot having taken a shortcut after being forced wide.

Verstappen, who started on softs, had to pit first. Hamilton, on mediums, soon followed as both drivers swapped to hards.

With Verstappen eight seconds back, the Dutchman had to rely on his teammate, Sergio Perez, who was leading after Hamilton had pitted, to slow the Briton down.

Lewis Hamilton got the better of Max Verstappen from the start

The Mexcian kept Hamilton at bay with superb driving, regularly forcing him back, and continually making life difficult for the defending champion. Eventually Perez cut Hamilton’s lead by eight seconds, with Verstappen calling him “a legend” over the radio during the race and thanking him afterwards too.

With 38 laps left the top two were directly battling against each other once again.

Although the gap had been closed, Hamilton began to reestablish his lead. By lap 32, Hamilton’s lead was back to just under five seconds but on lap 36 a virtual safety car opened the door for Verstappen again, who pitted in the hope he could close the gap.

With an 18-second lead and confident that Hamilton’s tires would last, Mercedes decided not to bring Hamilton in. The Briton voiced his concern about the potential risk over the radio.

Initially the gap began to close, but with eight laps to go Hamilton, having navigated through some traffic, still found himself leading by 11 seconds.

Fittingly for the season, just when more drama didn’t look possible, it arrived when Nicholas Latifi crashed five laps from the end, bringing out a safety car.

Verstappen took advantage, pitting for newer tires. Hamilton, because of track position, couldn’t do the same and was left saying on the radio: “This is unbelievable man.”

The safety car stayed out until there was one lap left, and then it was clear that Verstappen had the upper hand. Soon after racing had resumed, Verstappen took the inside line and that was that.

Max Verstappen beat Lewis Hamilton on the final lap to be crowned champion

Afterwards, the race director Michael Masi told Mercedes boss Toto Wolff when the Austrian asked about going back out for the final lap: “Toto, it’s called a motor race, OK? We went car racing.”

Constructors’ win

Despite losing the race, Mercedes did win the constructors’ championship (ahead of Red Bull Racing) for an eighth straight time. Ferrari finished third.

Outside of the title drivers and teams, 2021 was also a strong year for Ferrari, McLaren and Alpine, the dramatic wins for Sergio Perez’s win in Azerbaijan, Esteban Ocon in Hungary and Daniel Ricciardo in Italy live long in the memory of the 2021 season.

However, what on track was the most dramatic way to finish a thrilling season was somewhat soured off it as Mercedes, who brought a barrister with them to the meeting with the race stewards, lodged two protests about the result.

While both were ultimately rejected, leaving Verstappen as champion, it made for a messy, bittersweet end to an otherwise thrilling day of racing.

Formula One world champion Max Verstappen

Young gun

Verstappen was the youngest F1 driver when he made his debut aged 17 years and 166 days back on March 15, 2015 in Melbourne, Australia. At the time, the Dutchman was driving for Toro Rosso, the development team of Red Bull Racing.

Formula One world champion Max Verstappen

Youngester winner

It didn’t take long until Verstappen was top of the podium. After both Mercedes drivers, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, knocked each other off the track in Barcelona in 2016, the path was clear for Verstappen. Aged 18 years and 228 days, Verstappen wrote himself into the history books.

Formula One world champion Max Verstappen

Mad driver?

In his early years, Verstappen earned himself the name “Mad Max” as a result of his unwillingness to compromise. In 2016, he forced his way past both Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen in their Ferraris. Damaged cars and angry rivals were not the only result. “He belongs in the psychiatric ward,” F1 legend Niki Lauda said at the time.

Formula One world champion Max Verstappen

Track speed

Alongside criticism though, there was also huge praise for his driving ability. Verstappen’s drive in the rain in Brazil in 2016 earned him huge respect. While his rivals drove conservatively around the Sao Paulo track, Verstappen kept going and despite falling back to 16th finished the race third.

Formula One world champion Max Verstappen

“What an idiot”

Verstappen has no time when he’s the one being knocked off track. In 2018, he collided with the lapped Esteban Ocon (left in the picture) in Brazil. Verstappen turned, his car was damaged and his lead was gone. “What an idiot” he said over the radio. Afterwards, Verstappen went after Ocon in the box and pushed the Frenchman more than once. A community service fine followed.

Formula One world champion Max Verstappen

A sea of orange

Regardless of his behavior on the track: Verstappen has won over the masses. Dutch fans travel in their hundreds to follow their countryman, and often are the source of incredible race atmospheres. A sea of orange is a regular sight, and F1 has rewarded that support by bringing back the Dutch Grand Prix to the schedule after a 36 year absence.

Formula One world champion Max Verstappen

A tight team

At Red Bull Verstappen is close with those leading the team. Alongside Christian Horner (left) and advisor Hemlut Marko (center), Verstappen has two strong bosses. Marko was the man who brought Verstappen into Red Bull’s F1 program back in 2014 and has developed him since. “He says what he thinks, is always direct and doesn’t chat crap,” Verstappen said of the 78-year-old.

Formula One world champion Max Verstappen

Competent advisor

Always by his side is his father Jos, who was an F1 driver between 1994 and 2003. “We talk about everything, what I do during the weekend and that includes the set-up of the car,” Verstappen is quoted as saying on the Red Bull website. “It’s great to have your dad there, especially given he has experienced the same things and knows motorsport.”

Formula One world champion Max Verstappen

Eye to eye

Perhaps Verstappen’s great form this year is because of all the stability arround him. Many F1 fans are impressed that for the first time since Hamilton and Rosberg in 2016 there is a genuine battle for the title right until the end of the season. Verstappen and Hamilton respect one another and their ability but gave no inch in their fight for the crown.

Formula One world champion Max Verstappen

Collision course

The longer the 2021 season went on, the more it was clear that there was still some “Mad Max” in him. At Silverstone, Hamilton left him too little room, clipped Hamilton and slid off. In Monza, the Dutchman didn’t hold back and ended on top of Hamilton’s car. In Brazil, not long afterwards, he forced Hamilton wide again.

Formula One world champion Max Verstappen

Dreams realized

Verstappen has won 20 F1 races in his career. With his win in Abu Dhabi, his 10th this season, the Dutchman has realized his greatest dream of all by becoming Formula One world champion.

Formula One world champion Max Verstappen

Verstappen wins it all on the last lap

Fittingly at the end of a dramatic season, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and therefore the drivers’ championship came down to the final lap of the final race. After a safety car and a race director decision changed the course of the race and the championship, Verstappen, on fresh tires, overtook Hamilton on the final lap to deny the Briton who had taken control on the first lap.

Author: Andreas Sten-Ziemons (jh)

This content was originally published here.