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Formula 1

Why several key moments in the 2021 season happened off-track

F1 in 2021 has certainly not been short of drama, with a season-long battle for the championship playing out between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. The action wasn't limited to the track, though, with several pivotal moments happening away from the circuit.

Verstappen Hamilton
To news overview © Red Bull Content Pool / Getty Images

To say that the 2021 F1 season has been jam-packed with action feels like an understatement. With the battle for the title between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen playing out right from the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, all the way to the dramatic and controversial ending in Abu Dhabi, there has been plenty of wheel-to-wheel racing across the 22-race calendar.

When reflecting back on it all, though, it is interesting to consider just how much of the eventful season happened off the track as well as on it. Take into account the various stewards' calls, bitter exchanges between Red Bull and Mercedes, statements on social media, and the list of important moments away from the circuit soon adds up.

Here is a reminder of some of the key talking points from 2021 that happened off-track...

			© Red Bull Contentpool
	© Red Bull Contentpool

The stewards' office

It sometimes feels like the word "stewards" was used more than any other this year. From the early stages of the season, the decisions of F1's stewarding team came under the spotlight.

Perhaps the biggest moments of all, though, came during the final races of the year. The Brazilian Grand Prix was surely one of the busiest weekends in history for the stewards.

After qualifying took place on Friday - with the third and final trial of Sprint Qualifying set for Saturday - both Verstappen and Hamilton were called to see the stewards in regards to separate incidents.

For Verstappen, it was in relation to a parc ferme incident, with the Dutchman having touched the rear wing of Hamilton's Mercedes, whilst Hamilton was under investigation for an issue with the Drag Reduction System (DRS) on his car.

Consequently, Hamilton was excluded from qualifying due to the DRS breaking technical regulations, and Verstappen received a fine for his actions.

Initially, with this putting Hamilton to the back of the grid for Sprint Qualifying, many wondered if the championship was well and truly over for the Briton. However, he pulled off a memorable performance in Saturday's event, working his way through the field to finish fifth.

This wasn't it for the stewards in Interlagos, though. A particularly controversial incident happened between the title contenders in Sunday's race, when Verstappen seemed to push Hamilton off the track whilst defending from him on Lap 48.

Verstappen escaped without a punishment, and Michael Masi, F1's Race Director, later explained that the 'let them race' philosophy had been applied.

Mercedes appealed, but the decision was not changed, leading to continued discussion over what constitutes fair racing. It was perhaps one of the most controversial stewards' decisions of the year, and it sounds like there could still be further talks about it over the winter.

			© Red Bull Content Pool / Getty Images
	© Red Bull Content Pool / Getty Images

Press conferences

With so much happening in the title fight, there always seemed to be a sense of anticipation when Verstappen and Hamilton ended up in a press conference together over the course of a race weekend. Would there be visible tension between the two?

Well, in many cases, the answer was apparently... no. F1 journalist Tom Clarkson, who poses the questions in the events, claimed that the off-track relationship of the title contenders remained surprisingly relaxed during the course of the year.

The same could not be said, though, of their team bosses. Red Bull's Christian Horner and Mercedes' Toto Wolff shared a number of bitter exchanges throughout the season, meaning that any press conference attended by these two offered the potential for far more drama than that of their drivers.

However, a key snapshot came at a pre-race media event in Abu Dhabi, where Horner and Wolff shook hands in front of the cameras and agreed on a 'may the best man win' approach to the finale.

Whether they still felt so amiable towards each other after the controversial events of the race perhaps seems unlikely.

			© RN365/Michael Potts
	© RN365/Michael Potts

Race direction

Speaking of which, the actions of one person came under particular scrutiny after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and it wasn't Hamilton or Verstappen.

As has been heavily documented, the role played by race control and Michael Masi in the final few laps of the race has remained a point of controversy.

The Safety Car was deployed during the last laps of the event after Nicholas Latifi crashed his Williams - coming back in with just one lap remaining.

It initially looked like lapped cars would not be allowed to unlap themselves. However, it was then confirmed that just the five lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen would be allowed to overtake as the Safety Car came in.

Verstappen was then able to catch up with Hamilton for a head-to-head showdown on the final lap and subsequently won the race, and with it the 2021 F1 World Championship.

What remains particularly memorable is the calls made by Red Bull and Mercedes to Masi whilst this all happened on track, with both sides calling for opposite decisions to be made in regards to the lapped cars. As such, there has since been discussion over whether teams should be allowed to 'lobby' race control in this way.

Meanwhile, it has been confirmed that F1 will investigate what happened in Abu Dhabi. Another case of the controversy continuing well after the track action has ended.

			© RN365/Michael Potts
	© RN365/Michael Potts

Social media

With the Mercedes team remaining silent after their disappointment at what happened in Abu Dhabi, all eyes were on their social media accounts, waiting for their first comments.

For several days, none were forthcoming, other than updates on their intention to appeal after their initial protests against the race were dismissed. However, four days after the Grand Prix, the Silver Arrows shared a statement explaining why they would not be going ahead with their appeal.

The team also congratulated Verstappen, and shared words of praise for Hamilton, as well as the outgoing Valtteri Bottas.

Hamilton, meanwhile, has maintained his silence on social media, and seems to have made a statement of his own by unfollowing everybody on Instagram.

This has not been the only occasion in 2021 where social media has proved to be a particularly important portal for comment.

Verstappen used his account to criticise the decision of Hamilton and Mercedes to celebrate their win at the British Grand Prix whilst he himself was in hospital, having had to undergo checks following his crash with Hamilton on the opening lap of the event.

			© Aston Martin
	© Aston Martin

Wider social issues

Not every important off-track moment has been influenced by on-track action. Lando Norris has continued to open up a discussion about mental health, not just within the sport itself but amongst fans, too.

The McLaren driver admitted in a TV interview with ITV's This Morning that he felt "depressed a lot of the time" during his first year in Formula 1, elaborating on his prior comments about struggles he faced with self-doubt.

Norris has since spoken about how he feels proud to be amongst a growing number of athletes prompting this discussion, having noticed the effect it has had on his fanbase.

Meanwhile, Sebastian Vettel has become a key figure in terms of driver activism. Over the course of 2021, the German has showed his support for a number of causes.

Whether it has been picking up litter at Silverstone to highlight the need to care for the environment, wearing a rainbow-coloured T-shirt for the We Race As One ceremony in Hungary in support of those affected by the country's anti-LGBTQ laws, or running a women-only karting event in Saudi Arabia - a country where women have only been allowed to drive since 2018 - Vettel has established himself as a leader in this field.

What feels especially pivotal about this is that, as Vettel has said, actions are needed rather than words, and this is the approach that the Aston Martin driver has taken.

Vettel's former on-track rival Lewis Hamilton - also a keen activist - has talked about how proud he is of Vettel for standing up for underrepresented groups. With both drivers such a visible presence in doing this work, it feels like a positive step forwards in continuing the movement into 2022.

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