The 2021 Formula One season has been entertaining from start to finish. After struggling with competition for years, it’s crucial and fitting that this season’s drivers’ championship will be decided on the final Sunday.
For a sport often derided for being little more than a group of fast race cars going around the same track again and again, Formula One is enjoying the kind of excitement that most European football leagues can only dream of.
Throughout the 2021 season, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen have battled each other for the drivers’ championship title. Just when the Dutchman and his rapid Red Bull looked unstoppable, Hamilton and Mercedes roared back.
The Briton’s recent win in Saudi Arabia was perhaps the most dramatic of all this season. It was also his third in a row, meaning the two drivers head to Abu Dhabi level on points (Verstappen leads having won one more race this season).
A sport that, outside of Nico Rosberg’s 2016 win, was stagnating during Hamilton’s dominant reign of championships has shifted its excitement up a gear this season. The duel between Verstappen and Hamilton is central to that, but there are other factors.
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— Formula 1 (@F1) December 9, 2021
Step into US market
The Netflix series ‘Drive to Survive’ – a behind-the-scenes look at the F1 circus – has made a huge impact on the increased desire to watch. Taking the stories and people behind Formula One and delivering them into the living rooms around the world makes a sport about fast cars, a real-life sports drama with characters and teams to support.
Pivotally, it has also helped F1 reach into the US market.
Zak Brown, CEO of McLaren Racing, said in a media briefing earlier this year that the Netflix documentary had an enormous impact in North America. “Almost every comment you get out of someone out of the US, they reference ‘Drive to Survive’,” Brown said.
That interest translated into tangible support this season too as an incredible 400,000 fans turned out in Austin, Texas across the three-day race weekend. Next season there are two races in America on the schedule.
Liberty Media’s role in harnessing social media platforms to increase interest in Formula One has been huge, with more content now available more often.
That is not to say the season has been without issue. The sport’s environmental impact is not a new concern but is increasingly existential, while holding the decisive races in Qatar, then Saudi Arabia, and finally Abu Dhabi —three countries consistently criticized for their human rights records and desire to launder their reputations through sports — has drawn more attention to a longstanding problem.
Mad Max vs. Legend Lewis
Ultimately though, for all the off-track push and pull, the racing on it this season has been a decisive factor in the sport becoming more exciting. Right from the start it has been memorable, and the Hamilton vs. Verstappen rivalry has been at the heart of it.
Hamilton stole the show in Bahrain despite the Red Bulls being faster all weekend. After the pair had traded race wins, Mercedes outfoxed Red Bull in Spain helping Hamilton edge ahead.
In Baku, Verstappen crashed due to a tire blowout but Hamilton locked up on the restart, and finished outside of the points. Verstappen enjoyed three straight wins after that, including revenge for the Spain miscalculation as a two-stop strategy in France helped Verstappen recover from a bad early mistake.
Drama at Silverstone followed as Hamilton won but only after a collision with Verstappen that cost the Red Bull driver his race and divided experts on who was at fault. In Hungary, the rain kept Verstappen at bay and with Hamilton driving superbly to finish third the championship stayed open.
At Monza, the battle between the two threatened to boil over as Verstappen, back out in front in the standings, drove over the top of Hamilton sending the pair out of the race.
The clash in styles adds to the drama too. Hamilton is a superb driver in the wet and manages his tires superbly. Perhaps thanks to the confidence that comes with multiple championships, the Briton also seems more adept at tempering his emotions.
Verstappen’s foot-to-the-floor aggression and sometimes wild impulsion, traits that often accompany the challenger, are a big part of why the Dutchman has been so successful. It is also why he appears to follow a far more all-or-nothing strategy.
Tension has been high between the two drivers and teams all season, reaching a boiling point in the penultimate race of the season. With just eight points separating the challenger and the defending champion, the culmination of a season’s worth of drama unfolded.
First Verstappen made an error in qualifying that cost him pole and then, in a chaotic, crazy race that Hamilton eventually won, the pair clashed on track and were sent to the stewards.
Afterwards, Verstappen was asked by The Race, a digital-only motorsport channel, if his opinion of Hamilton and Mercedes has changed this year. The Dutchman said: “Yep. Very much. And not in a positive way.”
Hamilton arrived at the press conference ahead of the race in Abu Dhabi wearing a purple jumper with the words “F*** Off” written on the back.
Two days later in qualifying, Verstappen delivered a sensational lap to seal pole position ahead of Hamilton.
The season finale is here. It’s tight and tense and Formula One wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Will F1 have a new champion or will Lewis Hamilton become the greatest of all time, sealing an unprecedented eighth drivers’ championship?
Whoever wins, the fact there’s a chance of both on the final weekend is Formula One’s greatest victory of all.