We’re just a few hours away from the start of the F1 2021 season finale. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen claimed his eighth pole position of the year, with his title rival Lewis Hamilton starting alongside him in what should prove to be a fascinating duel for this year’s Drivers’ Championship.
With Verstappen’s teammate, Sergio Perez starting fourth and Valtteri Bottas only managing sixth in yesterday’s qualifying session, the advantage does appear to lie with Red Bull as the Milton Keynes-based outfit looks to secure its first Drivers’ Championship since 2013.
However, a mistake from Verstappen in Q2 could prove to be the spanner in the works as the Dutchman will start today’s race on the unfancied soft compound tyre.
What Pirelli are saying
The Italian tyre manufacturer have brought the softest compounds available to them for the final of the season stating, “As the circuit will still be smooth, with average stress on the tyres in terms of wear and degradation, the three softest compounds in the P Zero range remain a suitable choice.”
Further, Pirelli have highlighted how the best race strategy would be for the drivers to start on the medium compound tyre before switching over the hards in what should be a one-stop race.
This could play into the hands of Mercedes as both Hamilton and Bottas will start on the ideal race tyre while the Red Bull drivers, especially Verstappen, will now be forced to start on the soft compound C5 tyre.
However, given that 2020 represented the sixth consecutive race won by the pole sitter, things are far from lost for the Red Bull camp.
“This will be the first time we face the new configuration, including some areas with new asphalt, but we have been able to rely on simulations and other information in advance to prepare,” Pirelli’s head of F1 and Car Racing Mario Isola stated.
“In general, with the creation of some quicker turns, the track is now faster and with more overtaking opportunities. The result of these changes are bigger vertical loads, especially on the front tyres. But we don’t expect the overall severity for the tyres to change significantly, which is why we’ve nominated the softest tyres in the range.”
What this means for the title fight
Given that Verstappen will be forced to employ an alternate strategy for the title decider, the race could eventually come to Mercedes towards the end. As always a lot will depend on the start and if Hamilton can stay within striking distance of Verstappen, the reigning world champion should fancy his chances of securing an unprecedented eighth world title.
That being said, if Verstappen can pull away from the Mercedes driver then the onus will be on both him and Red Bull to maintain their advantage by timing a well-executed strategy in order to mitigate the perceived edge currently enjoyed by the Mercedes axis.
There’s a strong likelihood of the race mirroring the season opener in Bahrain where Hamilton triumphed by the smallest of margins after being hunted down during the closing stages of the race by Verstappen.
While all eyes will be focused on the duel at the front of the pack, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will also decide the Constructors’ Championship though Mercedes could wrap up an eighth consecutive title with fifth and sixth places, meaning the advantage lies with them.
McLaren’s Lando Norris also has the opportunity to end the season strongly with the British driver securing a surprise third place starting spot in yesterday’s qualifying session, meaning he is well placed to leapfrog Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc for fifth in the driver standings.
With Carlos Sainz starting fifth and Leclerc in seventh, Ferrari look well placed to end the season third in the team standings, an improvement that will be most welcome after their horrendous campaign in 2020.
Alfa Romeo’s Kimi Raikkonen will officially retire from Formula 1 at the conclusion on the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The Finn claimed the 2007 Drivers’ Champion and remains Ferrari’s last world champion. After 19 seasons, Raikkonen exits the sport after claiming 21 wins, 103 podiums, 18 pole positions and 46 fastest laps, and a record 349 starts (providing he makes it onto the grid) along with the aforementioned world title.
Raikkonen’s teammate Antonio Giovinazzi too will leave the sport with the Italian switching to the Formula E championship after losing his seat to F2’s Guanyu Zhou.
The race will also mark Honda’s final race in Formula 1 with the Japanese giant leaving their latest stint in the sport after seven seasons, with 2021 marking their best efforts in the modern turbo-hybrid era.
The 2021 season has proven to be one for the ages with the title battle see-swing between two exceptional drivers. The year was a much needed shot in the arm for the sport and with this particular era coming to an end after the teams agreed to an aerodynamic overhaul in 2022, this particular chapter in the sport’s history is without doubt ending on a high note!