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F1 in 2021: Will there ever be a year like this again?

A thriller on and off the track as two of the most talented F1 drivers the sport has seen went head-to-head over 22 races. Here's Nigel Chiu's take on F1 in 2021.

There's always something fascinating going on in Formula 1 but there hasn't been a season in a very long time with as much drama, excitement and controversy as this year. Let's not forget, there was the big question mark of whether Lewis Hamilton would even defend his title. The Mercedes driver left everyone on tenterhooks by announcing a one-year contract extension at the beginning of February, less than five weeks before pre-season testing. Without doubt, Mercedes and Hamilton were heavy favourites to continue their remarkable success and be the class of the field once again. But testing suggested they wouldn't have everything go their way in 2021. Red Bull came flying out of the blocks and their car looked sensational. The team talked about how they learned from some key mistakes in 2020 and their pace was ominous for the rest of the field. It felt like Mercedes would hit back though and that's what Hamilton was able to do at the season-opener.

Intensity from the off

Max Verstappen took pole position with a stunning lap in Bahrain, and it required a sensational drive from Hamilton to strategically win the season-opener. Both drivers were in a league of their own and there was also a little bit of controversy with track limits during the race. The tone was set for the rest of the season. Verstappen and Hamilton went wheel-to-wheel in the opening four races of the season. When was the last time the sport's top two drivers did that in F1? Imola went to Verstappen, as Hamilton made the first key error of the season when he slid off in the wet, but Portugal and Spain went the seven-time World Champion's way as he overtook Verstappen at both races. Momentum was on Mercedes' side once again. Ferrari joined the fight at the next two events in Monaco and Azerbaijan, which was remarkable considering the extent of their struggles a year before. Charles Leclerc put everything on the line, as he always does, in qualifying, and it ultimately cost him a potential victory on home soil on the streets of Monaco. Leclerc's loss was Verstappen's gain, and with it the championship lead. It was the first of five lead changes in the Drivers' Championship.

Fine margins

Baku was bonkers, as Verstappen lost a certain win due to a tyre failure with five laps to go. Hamilton had an open-goal but missed it, thanks to a slip of the finger which triggered his brake magic to switch on. These small mistakes had massive consequences, and there were too many of these moments for Hamilton in 2021. Sergio Perez took full advantage to take victory and was equally as helpful two weeks later in Paul Ricard. It was a race where we had two Mercedes versus two Red Bulls and the latter came out on top in this big battle. Strategy proved decisive once again, and that's something F1 has badly been missing in recent years The undercut and overcut, variance with tyres, pit-stops and tyre working windows all felt so important and made the difference between winning and losing. That's the type of F1 you have to love – the constant look for marginal gains. A hat-trick of wins from France and the two rounds in Austria - including a rare grand chelem - for Verstappen meant he was in a commanding position with a lead of 32 points heading into Silverstone.

The battle turns into a war

Silverstone was a huge turning point. Hamilton needed to win, given Mercedes' success at the British GP, and he had to throw everything at Verstappen to come out on top. The Mercedes driver wasn't willing to back down this time, fighting fire with fire as the championship protagonists battled without gloves on. You can reminisce about Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux in Dijon all you want, but before their collision, Hamilton and Verstappen put on a more modern show in a hair-raising battle. They leaned on each other several times and a collision felt inevitable. It was a big one, too, as Verstappen hit the barriers at over 180mph and was hospitalised. Hamilton went on to win the race to the annoyance of Red Bull. This title race became a war. Verstappen bounced back in Hungary, only to find himself with damage again. This time, it was Valtteri Bottas who caused mayhem at Turn 1 in Budapest, along with Lance Stroll. Amongst the drama and Esteban Ocon's glorious maiden win, Hamilton and Mercedes made another key mistake by not pitting at the end of the formation lap for the standing start restart. It cost them a relatively easy victory.

Surprises all-round

Ocon's win was a reminder that the midfield drivers can occasionally punch above their weight when the opportunity arises. George Russell did exactly that with a wonderful qualifying lap in the wet at Spa-Francorchamps to start the 'race' from the front row. That was a special moment for Russell and Williams. The Belgian GP was a farce and the less said about it the better. One staggering fact is the official race distance of 6.88km is shorter than one full lap of Spa, due to where the timing lines are on the track. Zandvoort's 36-year wait for the Dutch GP ended this summer and Verstappen absorbed the pressure once more. To have a nation on your shoulders for the first time and to deliver a near-perfect weekend was just phenomenal – something very few drivers can do. A week later, Mercedes and Hamilton continued to make small errors such as Hamilton's poor start in Sprint Qualifying or a slightly slow pit-stop in the race. Granted, Red Bull had a horrible pit-stop with Verstappen too, but Mercedes were failing to capitalise yet again. It led to another clash as Verstappen beached his car on top of Hamilton's in an image that will go down in F1 history. Thankfully, the Halo played its part so Hamilton came away unscathed. It underlined the intensity and controversy of this epic battle. The accident overshadowed Daniel Ricciardo's magnificent drive to turn the tide and somewhat salvage his difficult season.

The run-in

Lando Norris' amazing 2021 looked like it was going to be topped off with a memorable maiden victory in Russia, until the weather gods decided to have their say. Norris misjudged the conditions and will have to wait until he stands on the top step of the podium. Nevertheless, Norris has come of age this year and you can certainly add him to the crop of outstanding young drivers that are currently in F1. Hamilton recovered from a poor qualifying to take his 100th win in F1, another big milestone as he provided more evidence to show he might just be the greatest. Verstappen's second place was crucial that day and from Russia onwards, he maximised his result at every event. He needed to as well to become champion. It became apparent that reliability issues on Mercedes' engine were a concern heading into Istanbul and they were under serious pressure for the first time in F1's turbo-hybrid era. Yes, Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel pushed them in 2017 and 2018, but they were operationally not at a championship-winning level. Red Bull are; it's been one of their big strengths for a long time. Hamilton could only finish fifth at the Turkish GP, on a day that he surely would have cruised to the win without his grid penalty for a new engine.

Vintage Verstappen

Fast forward to the end of October and the United States GP. It was the first 50-50 race for a while and both Hamilton and Verstappen knew it. The high-speed game of chess was coming to its conclusion and Verstappen emerged as the winner. Don't forget, Verstappen was set to be out-qualified by Perez in qualifying before the final runs in Q3. Hamilton took provisional pole position, only for Verstappen to snatch it away with a champion's lap. Pressure isn't a word in the Verstappen vocabulary. We all know Hamilton is the master when it comes to tyres and this was another race where extracting everything from the Pirelli rubber would be key. The roles were reversed from Bahrain, with Hamilton on the chase with the fresher rubber for the final stint. Just like Sakhir, the leader after the final pit-stop was able to hold on with a skilful drive. Verstappen proved he might be on the same level as Hamilton when it comes to tyre management and that's a massive quality to have in your armoury. It's taken the Dutch driver years to reach this height but it's come at the right time because his victory in Texas was huge in the context of the championship.

The drama doesn't end

The tension and intensity naturally built in the final races. It was the season that simply kept providing drama on and off the track. Brazil was as crazy and wild as you can get. First, Hamilton was excluded from qualifying for an illegal opening in his rear wing when using DRS. Then, Verstappen was fined €50,000 for touching Hamilton's rear wing in parc ferme. You couldn't make it up. The war of words between Team Principals Toto Wolff and Christian Horner continued as both sides defended their respective teams. You could write a book on their relationship off the track alone. On the track, Hamilton delivered one of the greatest weekend performances ever. Having started at the back in Sprint Qualifying, he impressively finished in fifth, which meant he started 10th due to his five-grid place penalty for a new Internal Combustion Engine. Hamilton quickly made his way through the field and was in pursuit of race-leader Verstappen. The British driver appeared to get by at Turn 4 in the closing stages of the race, but Verstappen threw his car into the corner to retain the lead as both drivers went off the track. To the anger of Mercedes, the move was not punished. Despite everything Verstappen threw at Hamilton, the latter eventually completed the overtake to secure the win.

Controversy all the way to the end

The drama didn't end there because a relatively calm Qatar GP, which saw Fernando Alonso on an F1 podium for the first time in seven years, was followed by chaos in Saudi Arabia. Verstappen went over the limit, knowing he had a slower car and was prepared to do anything to try and stay ahead of Hamilton. It led to another clash, more controversy and some overdriving. Experience got Hamilton through the chaos in Jeddah and set up the decider perfectly with both drivers tied on points. We all know what happened in Abu Dhabi, it doesn't need repeating, since it's fresh in everyone's minds. Verstappen became champion in controversial circumstances, this time because of a decision from Race Director Michael Masi. That should sum up all of the key talking points in this wild year in F1. We didn't even mention the appeals or some off-track moments. There's just been so much to talk about and F1 has badly needed a season like this. Nearly every race had a lead battle or a dramatic moment that involved Hamilton and Verstappen. They are the superstars of the sport at the moment and F1 is thriving from it. It's a modern rivalry with an old-school feeling.

An all-time classic

Sometimes, you need some controversy or incidents which polarise the paddock to get the best out of a sport. As much as people want transparency, sport will always have controversial moments and incidents. It doesn't make certain actions right, and there needs to be a line. Some may argue that was crossed on more than one occasion this year. The reason for this thriller of a season is because of the margins – they have been so tight. When there are 22 races, there will be some tracks at which one car naturally dominates, but there have been very few Grands Prix when one driver has romped away to the chequered flag, and that's so rare in F1. It's been a proper Drivers' Championship and the drivers have ultimately made the difference. The strategists, engineers and mechanics have played their part too, but nearly every qualifying and race has come down to which driver has been able to deliver under the pressure and scrutiny. That driver was Verstappen and he is the reason this championship has been such a thriller. Hamilton has found his match, and maybe a tiny bit more. We'll be looking back at 2021 for a very long time, and rightly so.

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