What happened during the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix? Controversy explained

The 2021 Formula One season ended in some of the most controversial circumstances ever seen in the sport. 

That year, Max Verstappen took his maiden World Drivers’ Championship title at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as one of the closest title races came to a head on the track. 

All season long Verstappen and on-track rival Lewis Hamilton had been battling it out, with a number of crashes and crucial moments meaning that their championship showdown went into the final race of the year. 

Hamilton and Verstappen were locked on 369.5 points apiece ahead of the Abu Dhabi GP, an epic winner-takes-all title decider had fans gripped.

Prior to a late safety car stoppage, Mercedes’ Hamilton looked set to claim his eighth world title with ease, but that all changed on Lap 53 when the FIA, under the leadership of Michael Masi, made one of the boldest calls in recent history. 

In this article, The Sporting News explains what happened during the 2021 finale and what was said and amended in the aftermath. 

MORE: F1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix predictions, odds, betting tips, best bets for final race of 2023

With everything on the line from a title perspective, the race weekend began with Verstappen taking the final pole position of the season in stunning style as he beat out Hamilton into second spot. 

But his advantage wouldn’t even last a corner in the ensuing race as the British driver produced a lightning start to get past his rival into the opening corner. 

Verstappen tried in vain to gain back his advantage later on on Lap One as he dove down the inside at corner six but Hamilton cut the corner and maintained the lead of the Grand Prix despite Red Bull’s protestations. 

Following that, Hamilton dominated the early exchanges of the race as his car came alive in race pace once more that season. Then came the first pit stops as both drivers dived into the pits only for the Mercedes driver to come out behind Verstappen’s Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez. 

The instruction was clear from his team, hold up Hamilton as much as possible. He did just that, expertly placing his car in the most awkward positions to frustrate the title hopeful and cut his lead down from 11 seconds to just under one. In the process, Perez was also bestowed with a new title by fans on social media; ‘Mexico’s minister of defence’. 

Again, Hamilton pulled away though, picking up a 13 second lead before the Williams back marker of Nicholas Latifi crashed at corner 14 which brought out a very late safety car on lap 53. 

Verstappen pit onto new soft tyres whilst Hamilton stayed out on the hards, assuming that it would be enough to cross the line in the lead to seal his eighth world title. Instead, the FIA had other ideas and even though lapped caps stayed in position to begin with, five of the seven were allowed to eventually pass Hamilton which put Verstappen right behind him. 

With one lap to go, the safety car then came into the pits and as they say, the rest is history as on his much newer tyres, Verstappen cruised past Hamilton to take the first of his three World Drivers’ Championship titles. 

Understandably, Hamilton and his Mercedes team were absolutely livid at the outcome of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix which gifted Verstappen the championship and immediately protested the result. 

The German manufacturers insisted that FIA boss Masi had failed to follow the sporting regulations properly in letting only five of the seven lapped cars unlap themselves under safety car conditions. It was clear that that decision shouldn’t have been allowed to happen but the result stood after the stewards cleared Verstappen of any wrongdoing. 

Hamilton would go on and state to press that “so only one time, in the history of the sport, that they haven’t done the rule,”.

Mercedes instead then voiced their intentions to take their case to the International Court of Appeal but ultimately dropped their appeal before the FIA’s end-of-season gala which team principle Toto Wolff and Hamilton themselves refused to attend. 

Subsequently after a few months and following on from the FIA’s own investigation of the final race of 2021, Masi was sacked. The report detailed that the Australian had failed to properly implement safety car rulings but even still, the result stood and Verstappen kept hold of his 2021 title. 

What happened in the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix? Explaining F1’s controversial moment between Hamilton and Verstappen

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