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How Verstappen and Red Bull snatched F1 title glory in Abu Dhabi

Formula 1 served up a dramatic finish to the 2021 season in Abu Dhabi as Max Verstappen passed Lewis Hamilton on the last lap to become world champion.

Watch: The Controversy Behind Verstappens' Formula 1 Title Win - Explained

It was a fitting end to a season that has offered controversy on and off track, as well as an all-time classic battle between Verstappen and Hamilton that went to the very end.

It was a race that swung back and forth between the two drivers, and had it not been for some canny teamwork, some clever strategy and that final safety car, Verstappen’s wait for a world title is likely to have continued.


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The first flashpoint of the race came on the opening lap. Hamilton made the better start off the line and took the lead as Verstappen struggled with his clutch.

But Verstappen went for an aggressive dive into Turn 6 to try and take the place back. Hamilton cut across Turn 7 after avoiding Verstappen, prompting anger from Red Bull on the radio.

But Michael Masi said the stewards felt Hamilton had given up enough time, and did not need to hand over the lead.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes and Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing battle for lead on first corner

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes and Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing battle for lead on first corner

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

Hamilton then made Mercedes’ pace advantage show as he built a decent gap to Verstappen through the opening stint and pulled more than five seconds clear. Verstappen pitted on lap 13, but Mercedes responded with Hamilton one lap later, keeping him ahead.

The gap grew to eight seconds as Verstappen struggled with traffic - but then Sergio Perez played his part in saving the race by making his Red Bull as wide as possible, going wheel to wheel with Hamilton to hold him up with some brilliant fighting moves.

In the space of a lap, Perez cost Hamilton seven seconds to cut the gap to just one second at the front and revive Verstappen’s hopes of winning the race.

Once Perez pitted, Hamilton was again able to stretch out the gap at the front, forcing Red Bull to get creative. A Virtual Safety Car called for Antonio Giovinazzi’s stoppage was the perfect opportunity, giving the team the chance to put Verstappen onto a two-stop strategy after pitting for another set of hard tyres.

Verstappen rejoined the track 17 seconds behind Hamilton, and began to reduce the gap thanks to his fresh tyres. But as the laps ticked down, Verstappen couldn’t get any closer than 10 seconds to Hamilton, leaving Red Bull in need of a miracle.

But with six laps remaining, Nicholas Latifi crashed at Turn 13 to bring out the safety car and offer a final twist that would decide the world championship.

With nothing to lose behind the safety car, Red Bull opted to pit Verstappen again for a fresh set of soft tyres. Mercedes did not bring Hamilton in though, not wishing to risk giving up track position.

As Latifi’s car was cleared away and the laps ticked down, it became unclear if the race would resume or finish behind the safety car.

With three laps to go, Masi said that lapped cars would not be allowed to unlap themselves, leaving a train of five cars between Hamilton and Verstappen.

The Safety Car Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521, the rest of the field

The Safety Car Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12, Lando Norris, McLaren MCL35M, Fernando Alonso, Alpine A521, the rest of the field

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

But Masi then changed his mind on the penultimate lap, and race control confirmed that the five cars – Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel - could now overtake the safety car. With the race returning to green, it set up a last-lap shootout between Hamilton and Verstappen.

Toto Wolff told Masi over the radio that “it isn’t right”, but Masi wanted to get the race going again for the final green flag lap of the season.

With fresh tyres, Verstappen was able dive down the inside of Hamilton at Turn 5 to grab the lead, sending the Dutch fans in the grandstands into wild celebrations.

Hamilton tried to fight back as Verstappen weaved to break the tow, leaving them side-by-side into Turn 9 - but Verstappen pulled ahead to win the race, and with it, the 2021 championship.

It was a controversial end that has since seen Mercedes lodge protests and notify the FIA of its intention to appeal, meaning the story isn’t over yet. But for Verstappen and Red Bull, nothing could dampen their celebrations in the paddock.

Verstappen led just one lap in Abu Dhabi on Sunday - but it was the only lap that mattered, crowning him 2021 Formula 1 world champion.

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