Max Verstappen beats Lewis Hamilton to win 2021 Formula 1 title on controversial last-lap restart

·5 min read

Max Verstappen has a Formula 1 world championship.

Verstappen passed Lewis Hamilton on a final lap restart to win the 2021 world title at Abu Dhabi on Sunday. Verstappen had fresh tires for the final restart after he was 11 seconds back of Hamilton when Nicholas Latifi crashed with five laps to go. That crash allowed Verstappen to pit for fresh tires and overtake Hamilton after the restart.

Formula 1 officials initially said that the lapped cars between Verstappen and Hamilton would not be allowed to pass Hamilton and get their laps back before the restart. They reversed that decision with less than two laps to go, allowing Verstappen to restart on Hamilton's bumper and get the win.

The decision left Mercedes and Hamilton confused and fuming. And Red Bull and Verstappen ebullient. Verstappen had no issues getting past Hamilton on the final lap, thanks to the extra grip that those fresh tires provided.

Hamilton wasn't too far behind Latifi when the Williams driver crashed, and Hamilton couldn't afford to make a pit stop. Stopping would have potentially given Verstappen the lead had he stayed out, and there was no guarantee that the race would get restarted.

Verstappen had nothing to lose, so pitting was the right decision no matter what happened. He was going to finish second if the race didn't restart and a race restart gave him an opportunity to overtake Hamilton.

The most bizarre thing about the final laps were the officiating decisions from F1. Officials were adamant that the lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen would not be allowed to clear themselves on the restart. That would have provided a buffer for Hamilton to likely win a record-breaking eighth championship and cement his status as the best Formula 1 driver of all time.

But after saying one thing, officials changed their minds and said that the handful of cars between Verstappen and Hamilton could pass Hamilton and get their laps back right before the race restarted. However, not every lapped car was allowed to pass. Only those that were between Hamilton and Verstappen got to get their laps back. And the decision to only let some lapped cars pass but not all appears to be a direct breach of F1 rules.

Mercedes filed a protest immediately after the race, though the two protests were dismissed. The protest regarding the race procedures was dismissed at 2 p.m. ET, some six hours after the race began.

The two drivers entered Abu Dhabi tied in the points standings after Hamilton had won the previous three races. Verstappen left Mexico with a 19-point lead after winning there but Hamilton got wins in Brazil, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to tie Verstappen in the standings ahead of the final race.

Verstappen entered with the tiebreaker as he had won nine races to Hamilton’s eight through the first 21. It was a fitting — if hard to comprehend — end to a chaotic and drama-filled season that saw Hamilton dethroned for the first time since 2016.

The case for the red flag

It was clear that Formula 1 did not want the race to end under caution. So why wasn't the race immediately red-flagged?

Teams can change tires under a red flag in F1. Stopping the race would have put Hamilton and Verstappen on level tires for a late shootout. While Verstappen would have still gained an advantage — his gap to Hamilton would have been erased — Hamilton would have had a chance to defend on relatively equal tires.

Instead, the way the race was officiated flipped the race from Hamilton to Verstappen. And while it's indisputable that it sometimes strategically pays to be the driver in second place, Verstappen hit the lottery on Sunday while Hamilton went bankrupt.

Hamilton had Verstappen covered

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner told Sky Sports with less than 10 laps to go that Verstappen needed some luck from the racing gods to get a win. Hamilton had the fastest car all day and got the lead from the start after Verstappen had a poor launch.

Hamilton led into Turn 1 on the first lap and inched away from Verstappen after Verstappen had to start on the softer red tires because of a brake lockup during qualifying. Hamilton then pitted right after Verstappen did on Lap 14 of 58 to keep Verstappen at bay and had a seven-second lead after the pit stops.

Verstappen's teammate, Sergio Perez, did a wonderful job of holding up Hamilton and allowed Verstappen to close within two seconds. Perez pitted after Hamilton and Verstappen and drove very defensively when Hamilton caught his car to bring Verstappen back into the mix.

Hamilton sprinted away from Verstappen again, however. He was able to stretch the lead out again and force the Red Bull driver to pit for new hard compound tires under a virtual safety car for Antonio Giovinazzi's stalled car. That pit seemed to be Verstappen's last chance to get the win, but he wasn't able to make up the time he needed on Hamilton to make it a race. And then Latifi crashed.

Mercedes wins constructor's title

Perez was forced to retire from the race during the caution for Latifi's car, and Mercedes scored enough points to clinch the constructor's title for the eighth consecutive season.

Ferrari's Carlos Sainz finished third and ahead of teammate Charles LeClerc in the points standings. Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas finished third in the overall standings in his final season for the team before he moves to Alfa Romeo in 2022. George Russell will move up from Williams to take Bottas' seat at Mercedes next to Hamilton.