In 2021, Max Verstappen, 24, became an overnight sensation seven years in the making, who’s coming of age was completed with a Formula One championship.
It was a rollercoaster year in which Verstappen took the points lead three times, lost it twice, and entered the season finale tied with the seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton.
After first taking it following Round 5 in Monaco, Verstappen gave up the points’ lead following an incident between himself and Hamilton at Silverstone coupled with a modest showing the next week in Hungary. He lost the lead a second time one week after he and Hamilton crashed while racing for position at Monza. Verstappen incurred a penalty for the contact and finished second to Hamilton the following week.
Verstappen must have felt he was on the losing end of most of the controversies that will mark the 2021 Formula 1 season.
But with one lap remaining in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Formula One allowed select drivers to pass the pace car so Verstappen could pull up behind Hamilton. Mercedes challenged the decision and then withdrew their challenge on Thursday.
For Verstappen, it seemed like a rare call that went his way.
“I wouldn’t call it a vendetta, but I didn’t agree with certain decisions (from Formula One),” Verstappen said in a zoom call earlier this week. “I wouldn’t change my mind about it.
“It’s quite normal that people have discussions and people don’t always agree with each other, but I still have a really good relationship with the stewards. … Sometimes it looks like they love giving penalties, but sometimes they are tied to the rulebook and they kind of have to give a penalty.
“It is what it is at the end of the day, and I think it’s also good to have discussions with each other about certain kinds of things for the future.”
Verstappen led only one lap in Abu Dhabi, but it was the one that mattered most – the one ended by the checkered flag.
Hamilton dominated Abu Dhabi by leading 51 of 58 laps and held an almost 12-second lead with time running off the clock. Even so, Verstappen described his mental state as positive throughout the race. As the laps wound down, he knew it would take a miracle to win the race and championship.
He also knew that he had to be prepared to take advantage of any opportunity that was presented.
When Nicholas Latifi crashed with five laps remaining, Verstappen had a new lease on life and a fresh set of tires from a late-race pit stop. Mercedes and Hamilton chose to skip the opportunity. On superior tires, Verstappen made the last lap pass to score his 10th win of the season.
“Anything is possible, as you can see,” Verstappen said. “Everyone is beatable as well and what we take forward is we have to keep on pushing. We cannot sit still, of course, and just keep enjoying – we also have to focus on next year. I know how my team works and that’s definitely the case, so in a way I’m already excited for next year, but I also still need a bit of a break just to relax a bit from this season.”
— Oracle Red Bull Racing (@redbullracing) December 16, 2021
After winning one to three races per season for five years, all the pieces of the puzzle came together in 2021 and Red Bull Racing gave Verstappen his first World Championship in one of the most hotly contested seasons Formula One has ever witnessed.
“When Max first joined the team, he was a teenager, just 17 years of age,” said Christian Horner, team principal of Red Bull Racing. “He’d done two years of car racing – and he jumped in our car and won on the first time he sat in it at the Barcelona Grand Prix. What we’ve witnessed over the last few years is that he’s had this prodigious talent and he’s just developed as a driver, as a young man.
“Finally we’ve been able to give him a car to challenge for this World Championship and he’s been outstanding this year.
“The level of consistency, the amount of laps that he’s led, the pole positions that he’s achieved. The high-pressure moments that he’s stepped up to the plate have been outstanding this year … When you look at the whole season, I know a lot of people are caught up in the actions of the last five laps of Abu Dhabi, but when you look at the 22 races, he’s without a shadow of a doubt an extremely deserving World Champion.”