A season wrapped up in one chaotic final lap which could yet take another twist

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Well, did you really expect it to end any other way?

The final lap of the 2021 Formula One season was a microcosm of the entire year, 22 races encapsulated in 3.2 miles of tarmac.

Max Verstappen’s maiden drivers’ championship is still being debated and could be well into the new year with the very real threat of his Red Bull team battling for his crown in a courtroom, Mercedes the opposition once again.

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday, December 12, was a fitting finale to a title feud between Verstappen – the 24-year-old Dutchman who toed the line between competitive and combative racing – and seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton, going in search of an unparalleled eighth title.

Max Verstappen
Max Verstappen celebrated with his Red Bull team after winning his first F1 title (Hassan Ammar/AP)

Trips to the Middle East would bookend the year, the season starting in Bahrain on March 28 as Verstappen took pole position and Hamilton the race victory. It was clear who the title protagonists would be almost immediately.

Battling across the globe, Sergio Perez, Esteban Ocon, Daniel Ricciardo and Valtteri Bottas would all win once – all the others belonged to either Hamilton or his latest title rival.

Unsurprisingly, the intensity of the fight would lead to incidents on and off the track. Hamilton and Verstappen tussling at Silverstone, in Hungary at the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

As the drivers sparred on track, their respective team principals were duelling off of it. Red Bull’s Christian Horner would blast Mercedes counterpart Toto Wolff as a “control freak” and a “pantomime dame” and plenty in between.

Wolff, for his part, claimed Horner was a “windbag” too keen on being in front of a camera making jibes. Whatever the latest from the pair, it helped ramp up the rivalry – increasingly bitter as it became – between the teams and, therefore, their respective drivers.

Lewis Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton was left to reflect on what might have been after losing the world title on the final lap of the season (Kamran Jebreili/AP)

Verstappen had looked like getting the best of his experienced opponent as the season began to wind down – but, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot – the year would end with a bang, not a whimper.

Hamilton would shine. Showing the ability that had him draw level with Michael Schumacher on seven titles with a number of dominant seasons where the Briton was untouchable.

He took victories in Brazil – where he and Verstappen also collided once more – breezed to a win in Qatar and won in Jeddah despite running into the back of his rival.

Those results meant that Abu Dhabi and the reconfigured Yas Marina Circuit would host not only a title decider but just the second season-ending race in the history of the sport where two drivers went into the weekend locked level on points at the top of the standings.

The expensive yachts gathered in the marina, the VIPs mooched on the grid, the likes of Stormzy and Lewis Capaldi would headline the evening entertainment.

Christian Horner and Max Verstappen
Verstappen and boss Christian Horner had to wait for the stewards to rule on an appeal by Mercedes before they could celebrate (PA)

A peak audience of 7.4million would witness the most sensational conclusion to a Formula One season – and that is some stiff competition.

This was Devon Loch, Sergio Aguero, Jonny Wilkinson, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. This was the last-action heroes.

The Mercedes looked to have the pace to see off Verstappen, who would shoot back with a fine qualifying lap to steal an unlikely pole position alongside Hamilton – already the most successful driver in the history of Formula One.

The 36-year-old would be undeterred, taking the lead into the first corner and keeping it despite a lunge from Verstappen later on the opening lap.

Even a virtual safety car and some fine, defensive driving from the sister Red Bull of Perez could not keep Hamilton from pumping in fastest laps and setting himself up for yet another standalone record.

Michael Masi
Michael Masi’s ruling has meant the direction of the F1 title could yet be decided in court (David Davies/PA)

A crash for the Williams of Nicholas Latifi. A safety car with five laps to go. Race director Michael Masi interpreting rules in a way which riled both teams, both Horner and Wolff, to all but manufacture a last-lap shoot-out for the title.

Verstappen, on fresher rubber and with lapped cars controversially cleared by Masi’s on-the-spot ruling, had a clear run at Hamilton and made it stick.

The worry about the season, despite the fine motor racing, was the threat that the title would be decided away from the circuits. In a stewarding room.

That proved to be the case, Verstappen unable to toast his title for four hours as Mercedes launched appeals against the controversial end to the race.

Even after those appeals were rejected, further appeal processes and the potential of a case in front of the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruined what should have been a fine spectacle, with record viewing figures and new eyes on the sport left second-guessing rules and regulations, not wowing over on-track action.

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