Max Verstappen sensationally clinched the Drivers’ Championship title ahead of Lewis Hamilton earlier this month to put a polarising end to their extraordinary battle for glory that spanned the entirety of this year’s Formula One campaign. The Dutchman’s victory was sealed on the very last lap of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after Hamilton’s comfortable lead was erased during a late safety car period
The contentious handling of the last few laps by race director Michael Masi and the one-lap shootout that followed will be remembered for decades to come, serving as a dramatic reflection of the campaign as a whole.
It was an incredible year for the sport, with the titanic scrap between Verstappen and Hamilton dominating the headlines for the vast majority of the campaign.
However, it will most likely be remembered for the controversial battles that marked the defining moments of the war, with a number of these important twists playing a huge role in deciding the eventual outcome.
We take a look at six high-profile incidents that helped Verstappen to become the first man to beat Lewis Hamilton to the end-of-season honours since Nico Rosberg back in 2016.
An early advantage
One of the most important aspects of Verstappen’s title challenge was in full swing before the season had even started, with the 2021 regulations helping Red Bull to claw back their performance deficit to Mercedes.
A number of rule changes mandating alterations to the floor area worked against the Silver Arrows, who lost a significant amount of downforce when compared to their Constructors’ Championship rivals at the start of the season.
It was a clear sign that a new era may have been on the horizon when Red Bull dominated in pre-season testing to stake their claim as a genuine threat to Mercedes before any racing had taken place.
Their success in dealing with the new regulations ultimately allowed them to bring the fight to Mercedes, who had been heavily reliant on their floor area when they stormed to another championship double in 2020.
Duel in the desert
The late scrap between Verstappen and Hamilton at this year’s curtain-raiser in Bahrain set a firm tone for the remainder of the season.
The former chased down his rival during the closing stages on a more aggressive tyre strategy and managed to nip ahead with just four laps to go.
However, he was ordered to hand back the position after he was deemed to have left the track in order to get around Hamilton at the exit of Turn Four.
Although Verstappen was denied the win at the end of the day, his valiant efforts against the seven-time champion would have filled him with confidence over his chances of victory at the end of the entire campaign.
Verstappen was inadvertently given a huge boost when Charles Leclerc failed to start his home race in Monaco after his unfortunate crash in qualifying.
The Ferrari driver had already set a time worthy of pole position, but it emerged on race day that his car was still too damaged to take part in spite of his team’s hard work.
Leclerc’s absence allowed Verstappen, who had qualified in second place, to lead the chasing pack from the word go and the Red Bull man never looked back to register a comprehensive victory in the principality.
Meanwhile, Hamilton endured a frustrating afternoon and crossed the line in seventh place to slip behind his Red Bull counterpart in the standings for the first time.
Showers at Spa
This year’s Belgian Grand Prix fiasco was arguably the biggest farce of the year before it was eclipsed by the chaotic scenes that took place in Abu Dhabi earlier this month.
The race was in doubt even before the start of Saturday’s qualifying session due to an unforgiving band of rain that failed to ease off overnight.
However, after hours of delays on Sunday, the race eventually got underway in awful conditions in order to establish a result from just one lap behind the safety car.
This allowed Verstappen to claw back a five-point gain on Hamilton after the top 10 drivers, who finished in qualifying order, were awarded half-points by the FIA under force majeure.
Party in the USA
Verstappen’s hugely impressive victory in Austin was the moment at which many started to believe that he was indeed the man to end Hamilton’s five-year period of dominance.
It was a tense affair and the result was again decided by a fine margin, with the Dutchman coming out on top by just 1.3 seconds to secure a 12-point lead in the standings ahead of the last five races.
However, it was the nature of his defiance in the face of Hamilton’s greatness that underlined his title credentials at a crucial point in the season.
Both drivers gave it their all, but Verstappen managed his race perfectly and was duly rewarded with maximum points and a fresh wave of much-needed positive momentum ahead of the deciding rounds.
Masi’s helping hand
The events that unfolded during the final few laps in Abu Dhabi will perhaps be remembered as the most controversial in the history of the sport.
Hamilton would have certainly taken his eighth Drivers’ Championship triumph if Masi had not decided to clear the way for Verstappen by ordering the five lapped cars between the two leaders to overtake the safety car late on.
The fallout was immense, with Mercedes attempting to get the result overturned before withdrawing their appeal against the FIA’s handling of proceedings last week.
However, titles are not decided by the result of just one race and Verstappen was still worthy of his latest and greatest achievement after delivering a stunning campaign on all fronts.