A Season to Remember

Bob Varsha

Volume 46 Issue 26

Dec 19, 2021

Bob Varsha recaps the exciting end of the 2021 Formula One season.

    A year ago in this space I recapped the 2020 Formula One season, yet another crushing triumph for Lewis Hamilton and the Mercedes AMG team. Since the hybrid formula was introduced in 2014, Mercedes and its drivers have held the world championship continuously, a stretch of 2,577 days.


    In conclusion I asked: “Will 2021 feature an exciting new normal?”


    Who could have guessed that 2021 would offer the most controversial and compelling championship in years, the first to go to the final race of the season since 2016, when Nico Rosberg edged teammate Hamilton. This season the two contenders came from different teams, and Hamilton was pushed to the limit by Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing-Honda, who claimed his first World Championship with a daring pass on the final lap of the finale in Abu Dhabi.


    A furor arose from the handling of that race finish by Race Director Michael Masi, whose decisions created a one-lap dash to the championship in which leader Hamilton was a sitting duck on worn tires against Verstappen’s fresh rubber, especially after Masi removed the five lapped cars between the rivals. His was an excruciating dilemma: finish under caution, and Hamilton wins. Restart, with Verstappen’s grip advantage and position on the leader’s gearbox, and he likely triumphs. Initial appeals by Mercedes were denied at the track, but they have vowed to pursue the matter. For his part, Hamilton was gracious in defeat; he and his father Anthony even congratulated Max and father Jos in person.


    The arguments come down to conflicting interpretations of the regulations. The rules may well be superseded, the stewards decided, by the Race Director’s authority to run the race as he sees fit. Masi admitted his goal was a green-flag finish, and the result was incredibly exciting. A championship for either driver would have been entirely deserved, so the fans came up winners. Hopefully the issues will be ironed out in the off-season, and Mercedes will be satisfied with its eighth straight Constructors’ championship.


    Verstappen and Hamilton proved all season that they were performing on a totally different level than their competitors. Their battle see-sawed back and forth: Hamilton led the championship for the first four races. Then Verstappen won in Monaco to grab the points lead, holding it for six rounds. It changed hands four times in the next six races before Verstappen seized it for six more. That left only Abu Dhabi, where the two rivals arrived tied on points, something that had happened only once before in the 72 seasons of F1: 1974, when Emerson Fittipaldi and McLaren edged Clay Reggazoni’s Ferrari at Watkins Glen.


    Of course, the story of the 2021 season is about more than simple wins and losses, and the luck factor was always a presence. But for a tire failure while leading in Azerbaijan, two race-ending collisions with Hamilton at Silverstone and Monza, and being taken out at the first corner in Hungary, Verstappen might have clinched the championship with several races to spare.


    Yet each time Hamilton fought back, topping a late-season charge with an astonishing weekend in Brazil in which he rushed from twentieth to fifth in the Saturday “Sprint” race, and then repeated the feat, going from tenth on the grid to the win on Sunday. Also in that race Verstappen’s aggressive defense against Hamilton sparked a disagreement over rules interpretation that would last the rest of the season.


    There was also plenty of action among teams vying for “best of the rest” honors behind Mercedes and Red Bull. In addition to the points leaders, Sergio Pérez (Red Bull), Esteban Ocon (Alpine), Daniel Ricciardo (McLaren), and Valteri Bottas (Mercedes AMG) also won races. Another seven scored at least one podium finish, and points were scored by all but two drivers in the field: Haas-Ferrari teammates Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin.


    The biggest upward movers in the Constructors’ championship were Scuderia Ferrari, who rebounded from sixth place last season to finish third, despite not winning a race for the second consecutive season. Between them Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc scored in 36 of their 44 races, and Leclerc added a pole in Monaco that he was unable to capitalize on due to mechanical issues.


    Despite finishing fourth for the second season, McLaren also substantially improved on last year’s financially-stressed campaign. Unlike consistent Ferrari, the orange cars endured an up-and-down season with a car that was fast on some circuits, and then an unsolvable puzzle on others. Daniel Ricciardo sailed to a much-needed victory at Monza, while Lando Norris was heartbroken to limp home seventh from pole in Russia after being caught out on old tires.


    Another great battle waged for fifth among Constructors between Alpine-Renault and Alpha Tauri-Honda. The former Renault factory team got a maiden win for Esteban Ocon in Hungary with help from Fernando Alonso, who held a charging Hamilton at bay just long enough for his young teammate. Alonso also finished third in Qatar, a record 105 starts after his previous podium at Hungary in 2014.


    The final season for Honda as an F1 engine supplier was also boosted by the Alpha Tauri team. Pierre Gasly was a consistent top-ten qualifier and points threat. Rookie Yuki Tsunoda struggled adjusting to the grand prix life, but scored in 7 races, including a season-best fourth in Abu Dhabi.


    Aston Martin F1, it must be said, underperformed. After finishing fourth among constructors in 2020 as Racing Point, the operation tumbled to seventh this year despite the efforts of Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll. The scraps were collected by Williams-Mercedes, Alfa Romeo-Ferrari, and Haas-Ferrari. Actually, eighth in points was an improvement for Williams, in a season when the sport mourned the passing of team founder Sir Frank Williams.


    As the calendar turns, there are inevitable changes to come, incudling a totally new car and a switch to 18-inch tires. Williams driver George Russell becomes Hamilton’s new Mercedes teammate, replacing Valtteri Bottas, who moves to Alfa Romeo-Ferrari, while Chinese F2 star Guanyu Zhou bumps Antonio Giovinazzi from the other seat. Russell’s Williams chair goes to ex-Red Bull driver Alex Albon. And we bid farewell to 2007 world champion Kimi Räikkönen. The sport’s most experienced driver at 349 races, Ferrari’s 2007 champion put the season in perspective with his usual flair; when asked about the new circuit in Saudi Arabia, he answered  “It makes no difference to me. I’m not coming here next year.”


    But we are. Happy holidays, everyone!