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Formula 1

Winners and losers from F1’s 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
9 min read

The 2021 Formula 1 title battle between Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen still rages on, with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix now potentially poised to be followed by the Courtroom Grand Prix.

However that whole situation plays out, the 2021 Yas Marina race will forever retain an indelible place in the history books, and almost certainly in our collective memory – providing a final race that was not always befitting of the general consistent excitement of the 2021 season, but certainly befitting of its drama and its controversial nature.

Below, we name our (on-track) winners and losers from the Abu Dhabi bonanza.


Max Verstappen

Max Verstappen Red Bull celebrations Abu Dhabi GP F1

What’s the best way to win an F1 title? It’s hard to say – but a last-race, last-lap overtake on your main title rival to do it has to be right up there.

Sports commentators love to say “you couldn’t have scripted this”. But truth be told – aside from the anti-climax of the protests, and the mooted appeal that could yet theoretically nullify this whole section – this is exactly how you would go about scripting this.

Verstappen looked done, dusted, cooked with 10 laps to go – and then fate settled the score for that Baku puncture and Silverstone trip into the barriers.

That’s not to say Hamilton would’ve been an unworthy champion. Any such claim is plainly ridiculous in the face of his late-season prowess. But there is something deeply satisfying about Verstappen getting to bin off that obnoxious ‘future champion’ tag and cross off the title his F1 career has already unquestionably earned.

In 2021, Verstappen had the pace of a champion – Sergio Perez couldn’t get near him. You could and maybe should argue that he didn’t always have the driving standards of a champion, but many F1 champions do not, and it’s a wider question that goes well beyond Max Verstappen.

There’ll be time to consider that. For now, it’s just nice to enjoy F1’s pantheon getting an ultra-talented new member. – Valentin Khorounzhiy


Max Verstappen Red Bull Honda F1 Abu Dhabi GP

“The engine feels good. Much slower than before. Amazing.”

Five years on from Fernando Alonso’s sarcastic Spanish GP quip, which perfectly encapsulated the absolute nadir of the current Honda F1 project (and was also, for this writer’s money, comfortably the funniest F1 radio message ever broadcast), Honda power has propelled a driver to the F1 title.

It propelled that driver past a Mercedes-powered main rival, and allowed him to stay back ahead on Abu Dhabi’s two long straights.

Yes, Mercedes was quicker on the straights than Red Bull towards the end of the season. But it also had reliability concerns Honda didn’t seem to have – which would’ve been borderline unthinkable five years ago.

It’s still a major disappointment Honda’s walking away. But the way it’s gone about walking away – keeping up development in the final year and ensuring a reasonably smooth transition to the future for Red Bull – has been deserving of a reward. A reward like this. – VK

Carlos Sainz

Carlos Sainz Ferrari F1 Abu Dhabi GP

Sainz’s fourth podium of the season is enough to lift him above both his Ferrari team-mate Charles Leclerc and McLaren’s Lando Norris in the drivers’ championship.

He laid the foundations for it with a first-lap move on Norris, that allowed him to run behind the Red Bulls and Hamilton in fourth place.

Perez’s misfortune would promote him to a podium that he’d hold onto on the final lap shootout, fending off drivers on fresher tyres.

To finish ahead of both his former team-mate Norris and Ferrari’s highly-rated golden boy Leclerc, in his first year in Ferrari colours, is simply superb and this latest high point sets up a mouth-watering 2022 prospect if Ferrari can deliver him title-challenging machinery. – Josh Suttill

Yuki Tsunoda

Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri F1 Abu Dhabi GP

For the first time this season, Yuki Tsunoda looked the more comfortable AlphaTauri driver throughout the weekend.

He outqualified his team-mate Pierre Gasly for the first time on Saturday and led the team’s charge in the race.

Gasly reported instability woes throughout the weekend, but Tsunoda still did a marvellous job and would have still likely challenged an on-form Gasly, given his speed on Sunday.

He passed the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas in the one-lap dash at the end of the race to secure fourth place and was only half a second adrift of his maiden F1 podium at the chequered flag.

His efforts weren’t enough for AlphaTauri to snatch back fifth place from Alpine, but his performance this weekend – as part of his improved form in the second half of the year – will give AlphaTauri hope that it will have two consistently fast drivers to rely on in 2022. – JS

Sergio Perez

Sergio Perez Red Bull Lewis Hamilton Mercedes F1 Abu Dhabi GP

OK, that’s what Red Bull hired Sergio Perez for.

There have been too many times this year when he’s qualified too far back to have been of assistance and he does have some responsibility for Red Bull not winning the constructors’ title.

But when Red Bull really, really, really needed him – wow, he was there. In just the right place to do Verstappen a favour, and he did that favour with very well-judged and absolutely fair racecraft that was great fun to watch.

He’d even been just the right amount slower than Verstappen in the first stint to be in the way of Hamilton after a pitstop!

That lost podium would’ve been very well-deserved.

It all bodes well for 2022, too. The complete technical fresh start will negate Perez’s Red Bull experience deficit, and his team knows it has a wingman very aware of his purpose and under no illusions about that – just as Mercedes shakes up its formula by bringing in an ambitious young lion. – Matt Beer



Lewis Hamilton Mercedes F1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Sometimes the ‘loser’ heading just feels cruel, but there’s no other place to logically put the team that had the drivers’ title snatched away on the final lap. It was literally a loss.

Though an astonishing eighth consecutive constructors’ championship is on paper consolation, the respective moods at Mercedes and Red Bull made clear it didn’t make a huge difference in the moment.

It’s agonising for the Mercedes camp because the Hamilton/Mercedes package clearly had the pace edge required to win the race and title given a straightforward run.

And you couldn’t really fault Mercedes for its decisions not to pit on those two occasions. Doing so would’ve been voluntarily sacrificing the lead as Verstappen would’ve surely stayed out, and he wouldn’t exactly have been easy to pass.

Sometimes races play out in ways that give the pursuer all the advantages and put the leader in a can-only-lose position.

That’s exactly what happened here, and really the arguments over lapped/unlapped cars were a bit of a red herring as the key element was that a safety car bunched the pack and gave Verstappen chance to gain a tyre advantage.

None of which means Verstappen didn’t deserve the title. He really does. But you could totally understand why the manner of it all is so painful for Mercedes. – MB

Valtteri Bottas

Valtteri Bottas Mercedes F1 Abu Dhabi GP

The affable Finn never quite achieved the consistent level of top-level performance he was aiming for during his time at Mercedes, but his tenure as one of the Silver Arrows still deserved a better send-off than this.

What he got was arguably a genuine nadir on par with any of his worst Mercedes weekends in the past, discounting those couple of rain-affected races where he was completely unrecognisable as a Mercedes driver.

It wasn’t quite as bad here – still, Valtteri Bottas was not only well adrift of Hamilton in qualifying but outpaced by a McLaren and a Ferrari. His medium-tyre start was reasonable but he then got mugged by Leclerc round the outside of Turn 2 and Tsunoda round the outside of Turn 6, settling into a painful first stint of trying to find a way past Tsunoda.

Any chances he would be, like Perez, a secondary participant in the drivers’ title battle went out the window there and there. The older engine has has equipped obviously didn’t make fighting back through any easier – but it’s also no massive revelation that Bottas is simply nowhere near as effective at this part of the job as Hamilton.

The fact he was hung out to dry with no tyre swap in the late safety car and overtaken by fresh-tyred AlphaTauris is no real fault of his, but rather instead a puzzling team call – but it only added a finishing touch to an already-dour race.

That said, the vibes around the whole of his farewell weekend, from both Bottas and Mercedes, have been lovely. – VK

Aston Martin

Lance Stroll, Aston Martin Amr21 Leads Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin Amr21

There’s really not much new to say about Aston Martin’s season in the end. Yes, it’s eminently obvious that the low-rake cars were hurt by the off-season rule changes, but while Mercedes recovered to having F1’s quickest car by the end of the season, Aston Martin got nowhere near its lofty 2020 heights.

How much of this was down to engineering/technical shortcomings, and how much was down to the team flicking its benchmark performer for 2021 and allowing him to walk into Red Bull is something only those inside the team, with all the data, will have a particularly clear idea of.

Aston Martin non-scored in nine races this year. For its midfield rivals, the equivalent numbers were as follows – one (Ferrari), one (McLaren), two (Alpine), three (AlphaTauri). That’s fewer non-scoring races combined than Aston Martin’s nine. That tells a story.

It’s a story that will be forgotten that if the team has nailed the 2022 car, which is almost certainly the plan – pain now, gain later. But the gain is still theoretical, and the pain certainly looks quite real. – VK

Alfa Romeo

Alfa Romeo Kimi Raikkonen Abu Dhabi GP F1

Like rival Williams, Alfa Romeo ended 2021 with a double retirement.

It already needed a bit of a miracle to turn the battle for eighth in the constructors’ championship around so the DNFs made no difference on that front.

But it wasn’t really about this weekend. Take out the anomalies caused by George Russell’s qualifying brilliance, and really on balance the Alfa Romeo was a comfortably faster package than the Williams all year yet ended up 10 points behind it.

It wasn’t just Alfa Romeo figures claiming that, Williams acknowledged much the same. The difference was that Williams made its opportunities count and Alfa Romeo really didn’t.

A Q1 exit and not-his-fault trip into the barriers was also a muted way for Kimi Raikkonen’s often-brilliant F1 career to end. – MB


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