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Formula 1

Two years on from Abu Dhabi: The story of F1's most controversial race

December 12th marks two years to the day since the 2021 title-deciding Abu Dhabi Grand Prix - probably the most controversial race in F1 history.

XPB 1126121 Hi Res
To news overview © XPBimages

Given the way the 2021 season played out, perhaps the title-decider was always going to end as it did.

It was never going to end with the race petering out in dominant fashion and even as Lewis Hamilton cleared off, there was always a feeling of something else happening. It was one of those seasons and races.

Indeed, the way it did with Michael Masi's handling of the Safety Car period after Nicholas Latifi's Lap 53 crash the catalyst for an ending which will forever cause division and anger, and can simply be summed up by fans in two words by everyone knows immediately what they are referring to: Abu Dhabi.

December 12th marks two years since that night in Abu Dhabi, that forever changed F1 and Grand Prix racing.

How did we get there?

Firstly, it has to be said that 2021 was a fluke of a season.

With the ground effect rules pushed back to 2022 because of COVID-19, the cars were largely carry-overs from 2020, with floor changes hitting the target in pegging back Mercedes and field convergence allowing Red Bull its chance at stopping Lewis Hamilton taking his eighth world title.

In terms of racing, it was probably the greatest fight for a World Championship between rival teams as momentum swung from the early season Mercedes to the mid-season Red Bull before Hamilton unleashed a charge that took him to within five laps of eclipsing Michael Schumacher's seven titles.

Heading into Abu Dhabi, Hamilton and Max Verstappen were locked on 369.5 points apiece, but the Red Bull ahead on countback with nine wins to eight.

Both drivers were warned by Masi that any move to take the other out to win the championship would be looked upon with the utmost seriousness and a points deduction was possible.

With that, Verstappen stormed to pole by three-tenths as Hamilton rode shotgun on the front-row for his fourth title-decider in Abu Dhabi, having lost in 2010 and 2016 but won in 2014.

			© XPBimages
	© XPBimages

The race

With Verstappen on Softs - thanks to a lock-up in qualifying - medium-shod Hamilton got the better launch, with starts a seasonal weakness for the RB16B, and led the charge down to Turn 6.

Now, as Murray Walker once said: 'It's happened immediately.'

Verstappen lunged Hamilton up the inside, forcing the Mercedes to cut the track to keep position, but the stewards felt he did not need to hand the place back.

With Sergio Perez in third, the title rivals quickly cleared off, with Verstappen pitting for Hards on Lap 13 of 58 around the new track layout that removed the chicanes at the start of the main-straight and end of the back-straight.

Hamilton duly responded next time by, but Mercedes' own strategy was effectively used against them - one that had brought Hamilton victory against Kimi Raikkonen at the 2018 Italian Grand Prix.

That day, Valtteri Bottas (read Perez) was kept out to run long, and try to back Raikkonen (Hamilton) into Hamilton (Verstappen) and destroy his tyres.

On Lap 20, Hamilton caught Perez, and appeared to make a routine pass on the exit of Turn 7 - but crucially, Hamilton crossed the DRS detection line before Perez.

He also did not squeeze over to the inside, allowing Perez to slither up the inside. This one move created the means for the chaos that unfolded in the closing laps, with Hamilton's lead over Verstappen reduced from 11 seconds to just 1.3s.

Hamilton then steadily rebuilt his lead after finally dispatching Perez, but Verstappen was now in the striking zone, pitting under a brief VSC for Antonio Giovinazzi's Alfa Romeo stopping.

			© XPBimages
	© XPBimages

The crash

Fighting with Mick Schumacher, Nicholas Latifi crashed exiting Turn 14 on Lap 53, triggering the Safety Car.

Now, ordinary procedure would have had all lapped cars waved through and the race resuming at the end of the next lap - in this case, Lap 58.

But that was the final lap of the race, meaning no overtaking was permitted and Hamilton would be champion under the Safety Car - as happened to Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel in 2012 in Brazil.

Under immense pressure, Masi made, what was described in the FIA investigation as a "genuine human error" and allowed the five lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen through, and immediately brought the Safety Car.

Using fresh Soft tyres against worn Hards, it was really no contest as Verstappen dived up the inside at Turn 5 and held off Hamilton's attack into Turns 6 and 9 to clinch the title.

			© Williams
	© Williams

The aftermath

After imploring Masi to cancel Lap 58, a shellshocked Toto Wolff and Mercedes launched protests at Verstappen appearing to overtake Hamilton under the Safety Car and the restart procedure.

Both were rejected by the stewards at Yas Marina, but Mercedes initially took things further before finally withdrawing and formally making Verstappen World Champion.

As part of the investigation's findings, Masi left the FIA, to be replaced by Eduardo Freitas and Niels Wittich in race control, with the immediate aftermath being something in the in-box of newly-elected FIA President Mohammed ben Sulayem.

Verstappen's title was the launchpad for his astronomical success of 2022 and 2023, while Hamilton found himself in an Abu Dhabi hangover for most of 2022.

Coupled with the disappointment of the W13, he recorded his worst-ever season of sixth in the standings and no wins as his title was ripped from his grasp in the most violent of circumstances.

As an aside, a fun fact about the RB16B chassis that Verstappen that night, is that after it was returned to Milton Keynes, during a tour, a guide dropped an iPad and put a dent in it.

It must also be said that Latifi was subject to abhorrent treatment on social media, including death threats for making a simple mistake, with the 'Goatifi' moniker especially cruel.

			© Michael Potts / RN365
	© Michael Potts / RN365

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