OPINION: 2021 – An epic F1 season, ruined?

Happy Holidays everyone.

It’s that time of year when – just because we change the number at the end of the date – we all get a bit reflective about the previous 12 months. And I’m not one to miss out on a trend, so I was thinking back over the Formula 1 season we just had, and why it will live long in the memory for pretty much every possible reason.

I’m still one of the younger journalists on the regular F1 beat, and while it’s great to see how many eager and passionate guys and girls in their 20s are getting opportunities, it’s the older generation that I quite often gauge things from when trying to give what we’re seeing now a place in the sport’s vast history.

And among them, it’s quite clear that 2021 was one of the greatest championships battles we have been lucky enough to see.

Two drivers who are quite obviously in the ‘Great’ category when it comes to F1’s finest, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, provided something spectacular on an almost weekly basis. And it really was almost weekly, because there were so many races crammed into a season that was backloaded to allow crowds at as many events as possible.

At 21 races, this was the longest season in F1 history. And at the end of the 21st event this year, Hamilton and Verstappen walked away from Jeddah tied on points, having come together more than once during that race and still finishing first and second respectively.

That they did that on so many occasions is what made 2021 so special.

They shared the top two steps for the first four races of the season, and went wheel-to-wheel at some stage in each of those four events. Verstappen was slightly cautious on the first occasion in Bahrain and it proved his only chance to try and pass, but he learned from it and came back with more robust moves in Imola and Spain, while knowing when he was beaten in Portugal.

And it’s a mark of how good 2021 was that some of the best races came on tracks that can often prove dull. Paul Ricard was a brilliant strategic fight that went the way of Verstappen and Red Bull, while the reverse was true in Barcelona. Even Hungary – so tough to overtake on with the current generation of car – produced a crazy race courtesy of wet weather and Valtteri Bottas’ inability to find his Turn 1 braking point.

Somehow, that Bottas error didn’t cause the world to explode when it so nearly had in Silverstone when the title rivals collided at Copse and Verstappen needed precautionary checks in hospital. In fact, a lid just about stayed on it at Monza, too, when both ended up out of the race after contact at the first chicane, and Hamilton got a knock to his helmet from Verstappen’s right rear for good measure.

I remember how often they were asked about the potential for a collision in the early part of the season, and Verstappen in particular got more and more annoyed at the apparent insistence that it was going to happen at some stage. But it was inevitable, because the two shared the same piece of track so often.

The two title contenders were rarely much further apart than this all year, but the battle was sold short by the way the final race was handled. Charles Coates/Motorsport Images

This wasn’t like some of the other thrilling championships that we’ve seen. When Hamilton and Felipe Massa duked it out in 2008, or Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso went to the final round four years later, the majority of that year had been spent with one car clearly dominant over the other at various tracks. Sure, the pendulum swung almost as much as this year, but car performance and reliability meant there were fewer occasions the title rivals were directly fighting each other.

And even when Hamilton and Verstappen weren’t going at it, there were other brilliant storylines taking center stage. Charles Leclerc’s pole position and then heartbreaking failure to start his home race in Monaco was the first, and then Esteban Ocon serenely securing his first ever victory in Hungary ended the Mercedes/Red Bull dominance. To get moments like Fernando Alonso fighting with Hamilton in a way that helped protect Ocon just added to the drama.

I barely want to mention the farce of Spa – you can’t help the weather, but you can avoid exploiting the remarkable fans that waited all day in the hope of seeing some racing – but George Russell’s qualifying lap was quite frankly outrageous. Seeing him in a Mercedes is going to be a treat next year.

That lap came after a massive shunt for Lando Norris when the other young Brit looked like a threat for pole, but McLaren only had to wait two more races for its first win since 2012, with Daniel Ricciardo’s stunning victory at Monza – one that looked on the cards even before Hamilton and Verstappen collided – proving to be the only one-two of the season.

Norris had to play second fiddle that day, but was the star of the show in Russia next time out when he looked set to turn his first pole position into his maiden victory, only to see it cruelly snatched away by a late downpour. Despite all that, and Verstappen starting at the back, it was another Hamilton-Verstappen one-two.

Turkey was tense, Austin was enthralling, Mexico was ominous, and Brazil breathed new life into the title fight when Hamilton overcame a qualifying exclusion and five-place grid penalty to go from last to first across the Sprint and grand prix. It was a weekend that put F1 into the middle of the sporting conscience, full of controversy, pivotal stewards’ decisions and thrilling racing.

And there it would stay – with plenty more of the same – right up until Abu Dhabi.

The fact I live in the UK means the next point should probably be expected, but every single person I’ve seen over the holidays so far has asked me about F1 at some stage, and all they’ve asked is if Hamilton was robbed. None of the other occasions that I referenced above have been mentioned once.

It doesn’t feel like over time the anger from the final race will disappear to leave some rose-tinted memory of 2021. And nor should it, because despite everything that went before it, the final act of the season ruined almost all of those memories.

It was a sensational year, perhaps the best we will see for decades in terms of two of the greatest drivers pushing each other to new heights in direct combat and taking it all the way to the wire. But it won’t just be remembered that way. Rarely has a more deserving champion been crowned in a less acceptable way, and never has a more brilliant season been destroyed so easily.