The 2021 Abu Dhabi GP will go down in history as one of F1’s most controversial races, with the title deciding showdown between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton going down to the wire and sparking debates across the world.
The 2021 F1 season was one of the tightest title battles in recent memory, with Red Bull’s young challenger Verstappen putting up the sternest challenge to the dominance of Mercedes and Hamilton in the hybrid era.
And while the two duelled across the entire season, it was events in the final few laps at Yas Marina that ultimately decided the fate of the championship.
But what happened at the 2021 Abu Dhabi GP and why does the race still spark such controversy a year later?
The 2021 F1 title battle
Hamilton and Verstappen were in a league of their own during the 2021 F1 season, with the two in another race at the front of the field as weekend after the weekend the rivalry began to bubble.
The close nature of the contest and a number of incidents between the pair on track, most notably a 56G crash for Verstappen after a high speed clash between the pair at Silverstone during the British GP, send tensions between the teams soaring.
The bad blood also played out on track, with neither driver giving an inch and each accusing the other of going beyond the limits in their desire to get an edge against the competition.
Heading into the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi, the championship arithmetic was simple: winner takes all, with whoever finished ahead set to take the title.
Mercedes were confident heading into the race, with Hamilton closing the gap to Verstappen in the races leading up to Abu Dhabi and the team having a strong record at the track.
And in the early stages of the race, Hamilton did indeed begin to take off and leave Verstappen in his wake.
Then came a late crash which would change everything.
What happened in the final laps of Abu Dhabi 2021?
Heading into the closing stages of the race, Hamilton had a comfortable lead over Verstappen in second, and it looked like the Brit was about to take his 8th world championship when the race turned on its head.
A crash by the Williams of Nicholas Latifi brought out the safety car, meaning that Verstappen was able to close that gap to Hamilton out in front and pit for fresher tyres, setting up a grandstand finale.
However, it was the decisions of FIA race director Michael Masi about restarting the race, and the influence of Red Bull in those calls, that was to spark the biggest F1 controversy in recent years.
“We went motor racing, Toto”
With only two laps left to go, the rules as stated by FIA guidelines suggested that the race would finish under the safety car, meaning Hamilton would secure the title and Verstappen given no opportunity to have a final say on track.
As it was Masi, with Red Bull on his radio urging him to restart the race with one lap to go, let only the lapped cars between Verstappen and Hamilton unlap themselves and said that the race would indeed go green again with one lap remaining.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff pleaded with Masi to reverse his decision, with the race director using considerable discretion in the call despite it technically being within his powers, but the race indeed restarted.
With Hamilton on worn tyres and Verstappen on fresh soft rubber, there was little the Mercedes driver could do, and Dutchman passed him on the last lap with only a few corners of the season to go to take his maiden F1 world championship.
Masi responded to Wolff that they had “went motor racing”, drawing the ire of Mercedes and prompting a legal challenge to the result.
Those challenges were unsuccessful, and Verstappen retained his title, sparking a million conversations about the morality of the call and whether Masi had correctly followed procedure.
Masi ultimately was removed from the position by the FIA for the 2022 season, and while Hamilton was left disappointed with the result, he decided to return to the sport for 2022.
Who won the 2021 Abu Dhabi GP?
The 2021 Abu Dhabi GP was won by Max Verstappen, securing his maiden F1 world championship and Red Bull’s first title since 2013.