Breaking down the costly Mercedes mistakes that led to Max Verstappen’s victory in Abu Dhabi
First let us say this. What. A. Race.
The 2021 Formula One Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will live in the annals of the sport as probably one of the most fascinating and certainly entertaining F1 races in history.
The 22nd and final race of the season started with the two title protagonists — seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes-Petronas AMG and 24-year old hotshot Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing Honda — arriving tied in total championship points earned after 21 races.
This set the stage for a battle royale that even Netflix’s Drive to Survive series couldn’t have scripted any better. The most successful F1 driver of all time, arguably the greatest of all time, versus the young, cocky, aggressive challenger who had nothing to lose by going wheel to wheel with the reigning champion.
After the last three races in Brazil, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Hamilton had all the momentum on his side. The raw straight line speed of the Mercedes W12E Performance title challenger was unmatchable even by Red Bull Racing’s aerodynamics wizardry. And so, coming into the Abu Dhabi weekend, it would seem that Hamilton was easily on his way to an 8th record-setting World Drivers’ Championship title.
And yet they lost it.
How? Let us enjoy the benefit of hindsight and evaluate how Mercedes blew it for Hamilton despite their superiority over the weekend.
Verstappen gets pole position
Despite topping the time sheets in two out of three practice sessions, when lap times came to matter most in qualifying, Mercedes-Petronas AMG still was unable to deliver. And that is not because the car or the driver were slow.
Red Bull expertly made use of its number two driver, Checo Perez to provide Max Verstappen the slipstream he needed to increase the car’s top end speed on the straight. The tow from Perez, meant Max was able to land a time 0.371 seconds faster than Hamilton. This came from a car that was slower on the straight than the Mercedes under Hamilton’s hands.
Perez starts from P4
To compound Mercedes’ problems, Perez was able to secure the fourth fastest time in qualifying. And Hamilton’s teammate, the departing Valtteri Bottas, could only muster a lap time good enough for sixth. This meant Hamilton would have to fend off two drivers instead of just one coming into the first corner.
Hamilton had the great opportunity to start on medium compound tires. This meant he could run a quick pace longer into the race. A one-stop would have been the ideal scenario for him, pit stopping only once to switch to the hard compound tires to finish the race. But Red Bull had other ideas.
With two drivers in the top three of the race, Red Bull had plenty of cards to play with. This despite starting on the less durable soft tires. They could bring Perez in first and overtake Hamilton with an undercut tactic. Or they could bring in Max and leave Perez out to slow down Hamilton after his pit stop. And that is just what happened.
Perez delivers passionate defense
Outnumbered on the sharp end of the grid, Mercedes and Hamilton could only react to the tactics employed by Red Bull after their pit stop. Red Bull’s Perez was left out on the track and was given orders to back up Hamilton so that Verstappen could close in.
Defending against the faster Mercedes with fresh tires, Perez took his role to heart and made his Red Bull the widest car on track that night. Just when Hamilton thought he had gotten Perez, the Mexican would come right back up inches away from the Brit and steal the position back. For two laps, Perez was able to dice with Hamilton slowing themselves down in the tight technical sections of the track. More importantly, as much as 7 seconds was shaved off Hamilton’s gap to Verstappen because of this masterfully executed team game.
Mercedes misses a pit opportunity… on purpose
On Lap 36, Antonio Giovinazzi parked his Alfa Romeo trackside. This necessitated the implementation of the Virtual Safety Car. VSC compels drivers to slow down by 40 percent and keep the gaps between them steady. With nothing to lose, Red Bull brought in Verstappen for a fresh round of hard tires. Because of the VSC, Verstappen was also able to cut down the gap to Hamilton with a faster exit from the pits. Coming out 17 seconds behind Hamilton with 21 laps to go, Red Bull was hoping the fresh boots would allow Verstappen to close in.
Hamilton, meanwhile, was told to stay out for fear of losing the lead. This is where Mercedes made its first mistake that could have cost Hamilton the championship. By staying out, yes, Hamilton was assured of the lead. But only if he could keep driving at the pace he was doing since the start of the race all the way to the end. With rapidly deteriorating tires, this was a tall order to begin with. But if anyone could do it, Hamilton surely could.
“A bit of a risk to leave me out, no?” This was what Hamilton radioed in on lap 39. So already, the team knew they were taking a gamble here as Verstappen had the potential to produce the necessary times to catch up.
Seeing how Hamilton was able to still clock competitive times on worn tires that were needed to keep them comfortably ahead of Verstappen, Mercedes strategists were hoping that the race would finish uneventfully. Though they did ask Hamilton what tires to put on in case of a Safety Car situation in lap 45.
But as they say in racing, it is not over until the checkered flag drops. As luck would have it, a crash by Williams’ Nicholas Latifi necessitated the deployment of the Safety Car in lap 53.
“Shit, Bono, man… I can’t box?” Lewis called this in as soon as it was clear to him that the Safety Car was out. He knew this would have been the perfect time to get fresher tires to at least match Verstappen who was now 12 seconds behind him, albeit with backmarkers between them.
Wrong judgment call
While the mess left by Latiffi was being cleared, Hamilton’s race engineer, Peter Bonnington reassured him that staying out was the right thing to do to hold on to the lead. “We would have lost track position if we pitted,” said Bono to his driver. All the while, Hamilton already knew he was at a disadvantage if the race was restarted.
Previous safety car situations saw lapped cars allowed to overtake the leader to get back in line for a restart. This has become the standard practice as lapped cars influence a straight race. With four laps to go, Mercedes even assumed this much. The team’s strategists believed that even with cars allowed to unlap themselves, there would not be enough laps left to race. The FIA race control also initially advised teams that lapped cars would not be allowed to overtake with three laps to go.
But on the penultimate lap, guided by a common understanding among teams that where possible, it was highly desirable for the race to end in a “green” or racing condition, F1 Race Director Michael Masi instructed the 5 lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen to overtake the Safety Car. This now left Hamilton vulnerable with his old tires. And like a gift from the racing gods, Verstappen would naturally pounce on the defenseless Hamilton.
The worldwide audience, who until then had given up on seeing a battle to the line to finish what has otherwise been an exciting and unforgettable season, were all shocked by these developments.
For Red Bull and Verstappen fans, this was the moment they have been waiting for. Alas, for Hamilton and Mercedes, this was their worst nightmare.
On the final lap of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, audiences from around the world were cheering and roaring on the titanic one-lap shootout that would unfold. Max Verstappen fans wanted to see the underdog defeat the seven-time champion and deny him of a record-setting eight title. And they were not disappointed as the Dutchman dove into Hamilton into turn 5. Verstappen did all he could to defend his line afterwards, despite the cramp on his right leg all throughout the last lap. And now, because of the gamble Red Bull played that paid off, because they were bolder in tactics and strategy, Formula One has a new World Drivers’ Champion in its midst.
The 2021 Formula One season has surely lived up to its hype. This is what audiences have been longing for, for decades. The utter dominance of Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team in the turbo-hybrid era cannot be ignored. They have set the standards higher than ever when it comes to team play and technical superiority. Because of their consistency and high level of performance, they are still this year’s Constructors Champions.
Lewis Hamilton has set new records himself throughout this era. He is one championship shy of becoming the F1 driver with the most titles. And throughout this year, he has shown tremendous class, grit and determination to be able to bounce back and contend for the championship up to this last round.
Unfortunately, there can only be one drivers’ champion. And despite Mercedes’ intention to appeal the decisions of the stewards, it can be said that they were simply outplayed by Red Bull this time around. The 2021 Formula One Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was not Red Bull’s race to win, it was Mercedes’ to lose.
And they did.
Motoring and motorsports are two of Mikko’s greatest passions. Combining more than twenty years of professional automotive photography and videography experience with years of touring car racing competition, and a deep understanding of the car industry, from both the manufacturers’ and consumers’ points of view, have given him a unique and insightful perspective in the motoring beat.