After the way this 2021 Formula 1 season had been going up to this concluding weekend, you probably would have got short odds on it coming down to the last lap of the last race of the last weekend. It’s what we deserved.
All hail Max Verstappen, the 24-year-old Dutchman who joins a roster of racing legends who can call themselves a Formula 1 world champion.
His rival this year, Lewis Hamilton, may very well have seven of those coveted titles but that counts for nothing when everything is on the line.
Level on points coming into this race in Abu Dhabi, whoever finished in front of the other would take the title. It was that close.
Alas, it was to no one’s surprise that the controversy began before the first lap had been completed.
After Hamilton’s better start gave the Brit prior entry into the first corner, Verstappen bided his time and lunged into turn six, leading to Hamilton going off track.
In any other race we may have seen the stewards getting involved but it was deemed a 50/50 incident and the race continued with no further action.
From there it looked like a Hamilton parade around the Yas Marina Circuit, though Verstappen’s Red Bull team mate Sergio Perez put in a brilliant cameo, helping to hold up Hamilton after a pit stop.
But on lap 54 of 58, when Williams’ Nicholas Latifi hit the wall, race director Michael Masi had no choice but to bring out the safety car.
Hamilton couldn’t pit; if he had, he would have been behind Verstappen and could have finished under the safety car, losing the title.
Instead he stayed out and Verstappen pitted. Then it got interesting.
Race director Michael Masi said lapped cars couldn’t overtake, keeping a number of cars between the Brit and the Dutchman with what would be a lap left, before backtracking and allowing the cars between the two rivals through.
One lap, the fresh tires on the Red Bull versus the worn ones on the Mercedes – Hamilton had no chance. Verstappen passed the seven-time world champion with ease and held his nerve to reach the chequered flag and take the title.
The racing gods really were looking down on this race, and Formula 1 fans haven’t been treated to such excitement for years.
Verstappen is the first ever Dutchman to win the world title, and the first non-British or German driver to do so since Kimi Raikkonen in 2007.
German efficiency remains dominant, though, with Mercedes claiming the constructors champions for a record eighth consecutive year – not that team principal Toto Wolff will be thinking about that right now.
The last-lap chaos infuriated the Mercedes boss, whose calls of foul play were met by with the reply: “Toto, it’s called a motor race”.
And that’s just it, isn’t it? The race would have been mundane without the interventions of race control, and that raises questions surrounding the sport and its rules.
Williams driver George Russell tweeted “this is unacceptable” in the direct aftermath of the race, but as the man who will partner Hamilton next season, that’s hardly surprising.
Young Brit Russell does have a point, however. Should race control be allowed to backtrack on rules in order to get one lap of racing in at the end? Mercedes did not sit on their hands and were quick to submit an appeal after the race.
Both Christian Horner, Red Bull’s principal, and Wolff let tensions run high on the radio to race control throughout the race – and that was unacceptable.
Not only did it undermine the authority of the race director – no matter how contentious they’re deemed at the moment – but it backed up the idea that teams just don’t trust the authorities of the sport to make their own minds up.
And this matters why? Because in the age of Drive to Survive and a superb presence for the sport at the moment, including a last-minute deal to get the race on free-to-air television, we’re talking less and less about the drivers and more and more about decisions and sporting politics.
Behind all of that though, there’s an often hot-headed driver in Verstappen who has finally ground out a championship win, a driver who came into the sport before he had a driving licence, a driver with the grit to back his racing – no matter whether he’s right or wrong in doing so.
And so in this desert decider, of course it was going to come down to the very final corners. And in Verstappen, Formula 1 has a new name etched into the history books. Only 97 days until we do it all over again.