A small change with big consequences

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Formula 1 pushed back its major regulation overhaul for 2022 meaning this season was a continuation of last year’s machinery.

Mercedes dominated the 2020 season with the W11 arguably its greatest-ever car in terms of outright car performance.

With times and cornering speeds reaching breaking records, the FIA decided to make modifications to the floor regulations for 2021 in order to reduce downforce on safety grounds.

A small change which ultimately had big consequences with the reduction in rear downforce hitting low-rake teams such as Mercedes and Aston Martin hardest, while Red Bull and AlphaTauri’s high-rake concept ensured it enjoyed an advantage in the first half of the year. 

Hamilton’s Baku blunder

Even though the regulation changes impacted Mercedes the most, Lewis Hamilton won three of the opening five races going into the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. 

Mercedes was outright the quickest in Spain and Portugal, while the two teams were level on performance at Imola.

Red Bull was on course for its first 1-2 of the season with Verstappen running ahead of Sergio Perez in Baku until the Dutchman’s tyre failed with six laps to go, resulting in a red flag stoppage.

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This handed Hamilton an open goal from second on the grid to capitalise on Verstappen’s misfortune and pull away in the championship.

The seven-time champion nailed the restart but a misjudgment with the brake bias setting on his steering wheel - as he accidentally pressed the "magic" button - meant he locked up and took to the run-off area at Turn 1, ultimately finishing down in 15th.

A decisive day in the championship and arguably a mistake that cost Hamilton his eighth title come the end of the season.

Verstappen’s hat-trick of wins

Verstappen continued his fine form from Baku into France with Red Bull’s aggressive two-stop strategy allowing him to overtake Valtteri Bottas and then Hamilton to secure his third victory of the season, moving 12 points clear at the top of the drivers’ championship.

He was in a league of his own in the double-header at the Red Bull Ring, dominating from pole position to claim victory in both races.

Going into the British Grand Prix, Verstappen was 32 points ahead of Hamilton.

Copse collision

F1’s first-ever sprint weekend was one to remember as Hamilton was quickest in qualifying but lost out in the shorter Saturday race, handing Verstappen pole for the British GP.

The pair’s duel in the sprint was a sign of what was to come in Sunday’s grand prix as they finally came to blows in dramatic fashion on the opening lap.

With Verstappen remaining in the lead into Turn 1, Hamilton continued to pressure his title rival.

On the run into the high-speed Copse corner, Hamilton tagged Verstappen’s right-rear tyre, sending his title rival into the barriers and out of the race.

Even with a 10-second penalty, Hamilton would go on to win in front of his home crowd to reduce Verstappen’s lead in the championship from 33 points to just eight.

Bottas goes bowling

The Hungarian Grand Prix was another slice of misfortune for Verstappen when Valtteri Bottas caused carnage on the opening lap by clattering into the back of Lando Norris, who in turn hit Verstappen. 

Bottas, Norris and Perez were all out on the opening lap while Verstappen managed to continue, albeit with a heavily-damaged car.

Hamilton maintained first place but as the rest of the field switched to slicks behind him, he remained out on intermediates to take the restart on the grid by himself in what was one of the most bizarre moments in F1 history.

Even though he dropped to the back of the grid, Hamilton was still the heavy favourite for the victory as he cut his way through the traffic, until he encountered his ex-teammate Fernando Alonso, whose defensive masterclass stopped Hamilton from winning but also ensured teammate Esteban Ocon secured a memorable victory at the Hungaroring.

Monza flashpoint

Verstappen and Hamilton came to blows again - this time at the Italian Grand Prix. 

Daniel Ricciardo was already in the lead before the title rival’s latest collision and given McLaren’s superior straight-line speed advantage, the Australian always looked set to take the win regardless.

A slow stop for Verstappen meant when Hamilton made his pit stop afterwards - and also hit a delay in the pits - the pair came out side-by-side into Turn 1.

Verstappen on the outside, which turns into the inside, tried to maintain the position meaning he took to the kerb and was sent airborne onto the top of his title rival.

Another dramatic flashpoint between F1’s two main protagonists, and it wouldn’t be the last.

Hamilton’s resurgence

After being beaten to victory in USA and Mexico, Hamilton trailed Verstappen by 19 points.

The title race looked done and dusted at Interlagos as Hamilton was excluded from qualifying after his rear wing failed the FIA’s standard checks in parc ferme.

From that moment onwards, Hamilton found new energy in adversity, pulling out some of the greatest drives in his F1 career in the final races of the season.

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Amazingly, Hamilton went from 20th to finish fifth in the sprint race, before dropping to 10th on the grid for the grand prix due to another engine change.

In a matter of laps, the Mercedes driver found his way up to second, overtaking teammate Bottas and Perez.

The drama soon ensued at Interlagos as Verstappen and Hamilton battled yet again for the race win.

The Red Bull’s uncompromising defensive style attracted attention as he escaped a penalty for forcing Hamilton wide at Turn 4 on Lap 48 at Interlagos.

Hamilton would later pass his rival on Lap 59 to sensationally win from 10th on the grid and thus cut Verstappen’s lead to 14 points. 

His phenomenal form would continue in Qatar and Saudi Arabia with two further victories to move level on points going into the Abu Dhabi season finale.

The most controversial of final laps

With seven laps to go of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Hamilton had done everything right as he was on course to win a record-breaking eighth F1 drivers’ title.

Nicholas Latifi’s crash in the final sector resulted in a Safety Car, giving Red Bull the opportunity to switch Verstappen to softs, while Mercedes kept Hamilton out on hards in fear that its rival would do the opposite and therefore gain track position. 

It seemed like Hamilton was going to win with the FIA announcing that the lapped group of cars between the two rivals weren’t allowed to overtake.

But a last-minute decision by race director Michael Masi soon led to a controversial ending as only five of the eight cars unlapped themselves - Daniel Ricciardo, Lance Stroll and Mick Schumacher weren’t allowed - giving Verstappen a clear run at Hamilton.

As he did throughout the year, Verstappen duly capitalised and overtook Hamilton to secure his maiden F1 drivers’ championship - the first non-Mercedes driver to do so in the V6 hybrid era.

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The FIA’s failure to follow the correct procedure under the Safety Car meant this extraordinary season was overshadowed by controversy as Mercedes announced its intention to protest the race result before backtracking ahead of the FIA’s prize-giving gala last Thursday.

A sour way for the season to end.