F1 Abu Dhabi 2021: Michael Masi, Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen - what happened?

The 2021 F1 season ended in controversial circumstances as Max Verstappen claimed his maiden drivers’ championship. What happened at the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix?
The podium (L to R): Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing, race winner, and World Champion; Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes
The podium (L to R): Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing, race winner,…

F1’s most recent title battle went to the wire after a titanic duel between Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.

Hamilton had won the Brazilian and Saudi Arabian Grands Prix in the lead up to Abu Dhabi, putting him level on points with Verstappen heading into the finale.

Verstappen led on countback (more victories than Hamilton) but it was a case of winner takes all on race day.

The race

Verstappen stormed to yet another breathtaking pole position ahead of Hamilton, with McLaren’s Lando Norris in third.

Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez - who would later play an integral role - qualified fourth, while the second Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas only managed seventh, hampered by an old power unit.

Fast forward to the race, Hamilton made a lightning start from second on the grid, powering past Verstappen into Turn 1.

Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W12 and Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing RB16B battle for the lead at the start of
Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W12 and Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull…

However, the battle wasn’t over as Verstappen - who was quicker in a straight-line - tried to pass Hamilton into the Turn 6 chicane.

Hamilton took evasive action and was forced to cut the corner but crucially, retained the lead of the race.

Red Bull felt aggrieved as Hamilton wasn’t penalised by the stewards, allowing the seven-time champion to dominate the race in the opening stages.

Once the first pit stops played out, Hamilton found himself behind Perez, who was instructed to hold the Mercedes driver up.

The Mexican did to brilliant effect, earning him the title ‘Mexico’s minister of defence’, allowing Verstappen to reduce Hamilton’s 11-second lead to just over one-second.

It wasn’t enough though as Mercedes’ race pace - like in Qatar, Brazil and Saudi Arabia, was too strong, giving Hamilton a commanding lead.

Safety Car changes everything

On Lap 53, Nicholas Latifi crashed at Turn 14, bringing out the Safety Car.

This reduced Hamilton's 13-second lead over Verstappen but with lapped traffic between the pair (five cars), the British driver was safe from the Red Bull, who had just stopped for fresh soft tyres (Hamilton was still on the hard tyres).

The lapped cars were informed they wouldn’t be allowed to overtake the Safety Car and thus give Hamilton a crucial buffer over Verstappen.

Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W12 leads behind the Aston Martin FIA Safety
Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 W12 leads behind the Aston Martin FIA…

Hamilton was on course to become an eight-time champion with the race set to finish behind the Safety Car.

However, on Lap 57, Masi allowed five of the seven lapped cars to unlap themselves, allowing Verstappen to have a free run at Hamilton.

The race resumed with just one lap remaining, giving Verstappen enough time to make the most of his fresher tyres to take the lead and thus secure the 2021 F1 world championship.

It was a remarkable ending to an unforgettable season but the fallout would soon begin with Toto Wolff complaining to race director Michael Masi over team radio during the final lap and again, at the end of the race.

The post-race fallout

Mercedes were quick to protest the result, alleging that Verstappen had overtaken Hamilton under the Safety Car, and Masi failing to follow the FIA’s sporting regulations correctly.

Verstappen was ultimately cleared by the stewards but it wouldn’t stop there with Mercedes threatening further appeal by going to the International Court of Appeal because of Masi's ill-handling of the finale.

The point of contention was that Masi only allowed a handful of the lapped cars to overtake the Safety Car rather than all of them - as the rules state.

Michael Masi (AUS) FIA Race Director with Chase Carey (USA) on the
Michael Masi (AUS) FIA Race Director with Chase Carey (USA) on the

However, ahead of the FIA’s prize giving gala, Mercedes withdrew their intention to appeal as Wolff and Hamilton opted against attending the ceremony.

The FIA would conduct their own investigation over the winter, ultimately deciding to sack Michael Masi ahead of the 2022 F1 season.

It was clear that Masi failed to follow the Safety Car rules correctly but the result and outcome remained unchanged. 

A sour end to a legendary F1 season.

Race winner and World Champion Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing celebrates with the
Race winner and World Champion Max Verstappen (NLD) Red Bull Racing…

What was said in 2022?

“So only one time, in the history of the sport, that they haven’t done the rule," Hamilton said, reflecting on Abu Dhabi in 2022.

He also said: "What really was breaking was to just believe that the sport would do something like that. That that would happen, given that there are so many people you rely on. You expect that the job would be done right.

"An outcome of a world championship which so many people have worked so hard for would come out through a wrong decision from somebody, you know?"

Bottas said: "He just couldn’t believe it had happened.”

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