The battle for the Formula 1 drivers’ championship has only gone down to the wire 30 times in 72 seasons.
A true winner-takes-all head-to-head is even rarer, while a last-lap pass by one title contender on the other to swing the battle in their favour is unique.
So now the dust has settled on Abu Dhabi 2021, where does it stand among the great title deciders?
There will be some who consider it sacrilegious even to pose that question and dismiss 2021 from the debate as a consequence. But given the controversy that engulfed the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is one of the factors marking out the most talked-about finales, if anything that’s an argument in its favour rather than against it.
Much depends on the definition of ‘great’, something that is subjective and is inherently in the eye of the beholder.
For devoted fans of one title protagonist or the other, the outcome will doubtless be the dominant factor, but in this case it’s irrelevant. It’s the journey that counts. What’s more, the calibre of the drivers and the fact this was a rare generational battle gave it an extra frisson of excitement.
The set-up for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was remarkable. It was the climax of a season-long battle between two elite-level drivers, one a proven all-time great and the other a great-in-the-making, with the two dead level – save for Max Verstappen’s countback advantage. Not since 1974 had the top two title protagonists gone into the final race on equal terms.
The intensity, built across months of combat that had already spilled over into collisions – the most recent only a week earlier in Saudi Arabia – was as marked as it has been for any title decider.
Add to the mix two great teams – in Mercedes the most dominant of all-time in terms of its run of success, and the re-emerging Red Bull – and you have the perfect ingredients for a title decider. Two teams, two drivers and a season of performance swings one way then the other made for the perfect foundations for the last-race shootout.
The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was largely straightforward but bookended by two major flashpoints.
The first was Verstappen’s lap one attempt to pass Hamilton up the inside of Turn 6, with the Mercedes driver cutting the track.
Hamilton argued he was forced off the track and the stewards were satisfied, meaning he retained the lead and pulled away in the first stint. That will be remembered by most only as a footnote given what followed.
Hamilton stayed in control for much of the race, although Verstappen’s team-mate Sergio Perez made a vital intervention by delaying him thanks to extending the first stint then driving brilliantly for a lap-and-a-half.
That time-sapping effect ensured Hamilton did not have the necessary time to take a pitstop under the mid-race VSC deployed when Antonio Giovinazzi retired, making Perez’s time-sapping defence one of the key cameos of the season.
But everything changed when Nicholas Latifi crashed – a completely normal and honest racing error that has since attracted unforgivable bile and shocking death threats on social media.
The FIA certainly did not adhere to its procedures, the timing of the lapped cars being ordered past on lap 57 meaning the race should not have restarted on lap 58.
But there’s another dimension to that error, as given the track was clear while the cars were still on lap 56, there was a potential window to instruct the lap cars to go past in time.
Then, according to the regs, the race could restart on lap 58 and the same final lap could have played out perfectly legitimately – especially if all the lapped cars were let past.
That’s clearly a hypothetical, but it underlines that the problem with what happened in Abu Dhabi was procedural rather than fundamentally the outcome.
The FIA has yet to provide an adequate explanation and ran roughshod over its own rules, but the scenario with the slower chaser getting a free pitstop and capitalising on it is a common one in F1 – even if this was an unusually high-stakes manifestation of it.
That’s not a defence of the FIA, but a reminder that the unacceptable race control errors stretched beyond the overly-simplistic argument that the race had to finish under the safety car.
While the fury of Mercedes and Hamilton is completely understandable, you also can’t blame Red Bull and Verstappen for capitalising on the opportunity.
Verstappen’s grip advantage was significant, but it was an intelligent decision to make his dive at the Turn 5 hairpin. Partly, it took Hamilton by surprise as he set up to maximise his exit, but it also meant that the move didn’t have to happen at Turn 6 with the risk of a repeat of lap one. Hamilton fought well and drew back alongside Verstappen into Turn 9, but the battle was lost.
Regardless of the circumstances and the uneven grip levels, this was an unbelievable way for the championship to be resolved. Verstappen fans cheered, Hamilton fans were angry but the neutrals were left amazed by how it all played out.
That’s one of the defining characteristics of a great title decider. Realistically, either driver would have been a worthy champion and while Verstappen lucked in on the day – capitalising on that fortune brilliantly – this was a championship decided over 22 race weekends.
Abu Dhabi 2021 will be talked about in terms of the controversy, which is hardly the most pure of reasons. But that debate is a little more complex than many present it as – reflecting poorly on race control and the determination to ensure a grandstand finish but falling short of the deliberate attempt to swing the championship against Hamilton that some make it out to be.
In our podcast episode delving into the controversy we discussed at length why it reflected so badly on the FIA and is about far more than simply the destiny of the world championship.
That last-lap battle will also be remembered because it was unprecedented and might very well not happen again. And when it comes to the most celebrated and discussed title deciders, it’s the ones with the late drama and controversy that are lodged in the memory.
Because of that controversy, it’s up there with Adelaide 1994 or Jerez 1997, combining that with the late drama of a Brazil 2008. That finale will always stand in my mind as the greatest title decider simply because of the nature of the late drama – one of the other two occasions when the destiny of the title swung on the last lap, the other being 1964.
Adelaide 1986 also stands out as great decider because of the spectacle of Nigel Mansell’s high-speed tyre failure and underdog Alain Prost grabbing the title.
It’s those stories that mark out the great deciders, even if they are often misrepresented – something that is the case with Jack Brabham pushing his out-of-fuel Cooper across the line at Sebring in 1959.
It showed admirable determination and strength but, actually, didn’t make any difference to whether he won the title or not – even if he couldn’t have been sure of that at the time.
For many, Abu Dhabi 2021 will be a sore point in perpetuity and the FIA must prove that its process of analysis and improvements that follows is taken seriously and is meaningful. But just because the ends don’t justify the means, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be considered a great title decider.
After all, at its heart, sport is combative and potentially divisive. What’s abundantly clear is that this title decider will never, ever be forgotten and produced one of the most astonishing climaxes in grand prix history.
If it was just controversy, that wouldn’t be enough, but there was more to what happened and, as such, it will be argued about for as long as motorsport matters.