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Formula 1

Two overlooked details from Verstappen’s title-winning lap

by Scott Mitchell-Malm
4 min read

Two elements of Formula 1 world champion Max Verstappen’s final grand prix of 2021 would have been eye-catching were the circumstances of the title decider not so contentious.

The season aftermath has been dominated by debate over the FIA’s late-race intervention with the safety car restart procedure and the now-abandoned legal challenge by Mercedes after that intervention denied Lewis Hamilton the title.

Attention has rightly been on the rule-bending way in which race director Michael Masi chose to end the safety car period and set up the last-lap shootout for the title.

Dec 16 : Why Mercedes dropped its appeal

Hamilton was left exceptionally vulnerable for that restart because he was on old, hard tyres while Verstappen had been able to switch to fresh softs without sacrificing track position.

The specific details of how that lap played out have been overshadowed because they were a consequence of a far greater influencing factor.

Two of those details – Verstappen’s uncharacteristic tenseness and his title-winning pass – have been reduced to interesting footnotes but they are interesting, nonetheless.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Race Day Abu Dhabi, Uae

The first is that Verstappen was unusually nervous. And that ultimately manifested itself in the last lap cramp you might have heard him talk about in almost every interview he’s done since becoming champion.

While it’s understandable for a driver to be nervous for the biggest day of their career it’s a clash with Verstappen’s ultra-cool persona, let alone something he’d ever normally admit to.

Usually his race-to-race approach helps a lot with staying calm and not getting carried away but he confessed afterwards it was “quite a nervous day”. That led to a physically painful final lap.

In a lengthy interview published at the end of this week by his sponsor CarNext, Verstappen said: “Normally, I’m not nervous at all for any race. But I was.

“My mum is always nervous, it doesn’t matter if I’m doing qualifying or a race she always has to go to the toilet many times during the race! But everyone was tense.

“Everything just went upside down in the last lap. And that last lap for me, you see me doing the move – but I had this cramp.

“So, all the time when I was going full throttle, I basically almost couldn’t go full throttle, because my leg was like…it was really, really painful.

“You’re just very tense, so your muscles cramp up. And yeah, it was very tough.”

With what was on the line, Verstappen’s calf muscle could have needed to snap completely in two to prevent him from lifting down the back straights.

At that point he was defending from Hamilton after launching a surprise move from a fair way back into the Turn 5 hairpin.

Going that early in the lap – and before two long straights – left Verstappen vulnerable to a response and surprised a lot of people.

That included his father Jos, who admitted in the same interview alongside his son that he was thinking: “Why there?! Because then you have two straights after that.

“So, I was thinking he’s lining up to pass him at the end of the straight. But it happened there. I think a lot of people were surprised.”

But the new world champion had a clear read of the situation.

Starting that final lap on softs he knew he would have better cornering performance and traction than Hamilton and he was set up by the team to have full Honda power deployment down the back straights.

He also knew he had an extra weapon in the form of Red Bull’s low-downforce set-up, which had won him pole on Saturday before a slow start cost him the lead.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Race Day Abu Dhabi, Uae

For Verstappen himself, launching the attack on Hamilton at Turn 5 – where the Mercedes driver did not defend – was a simple calculation.

“I knew I had better top speed,” he said. “So, I was like, ‘as soon as I’m ahead, then I can control the defence’.

“Because when you’re behind, you can always close the door and then you’re not fully in control.

“So, it’s like, ‘I need to send it there. And then I am in control’.”

It would be wrong to overplay the move itself because Verstappen did have a huge advantage over Hamilton, so the most impressive thing about this is Verstappen’s clarity of thought.

He was not going to turn down the opportunity he had been presented with but still only had one lap to make the pass and opted to take control at the earliest possible opportunity.

Oddly, the first “massive cramp” Verstappen suffered coming through Turns 2 and 3 behind Hamilton also meant the title-winning move offered a moment of respite: “I was happy there was Turn 5, so I could brake and relax for a few seconds.”

As his race engineer Gianpiero Lambiase instructed him to “press and hold overtake” down the following straight, Verstappen said he had to “bite through it” and fend off Hamilton’s spirited attempt to regain the place despite his tyre disadvantage.

“It was very cool, very hectic,” Verstappen said. “It just summed up the whole season: completely unpredictable and crazy throughout.”

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