2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix: Full Weekend Report & Highlights

The 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, officially known as the Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix 2021, was full of drama and controversy.


By Ben Bush
Updated on July 3, 2024

Reviewed and checked by Mark Phelan

Max vs Lewis The 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

The 2021 Formula 1 season will be remembered as one of the most intense and closely fought battles in the sport’s history. The showdown between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen had fans on the edge of their seats throughout the year, and it all came down to the final race.

The race saw an epic battle played out on the track between these two fierce rivals, and by the chequered flag, controversy ensued that led to eventual changes in F1 rules for the 2022 season.

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2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

The 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix took place on December 12, 2021, at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi. This race marked the end of the 2021 Formula 1 World Championship and held enormous stakes, determining the Drivers’ and Constructors’ championships. The leaders, Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton entered the race tied on 369.5 points each.

In a dramatic turn of events, Hamilton led a significant portion of the race and seemed poised to clinch an unprecedented eighth World Drivers’ Championship title. He had taken the lead right from the start, making a decisive move on the first lap at turn one. However, in the closing moments of the race, a highly controversial safety car restart occurred. Verstappen capitalised on this opportunity and overtook Hamilton on the final lap, securing the win and, ultimately, the Drivers’ Championship.

Following the race, the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) began an inquiry into the race start proceedings following the Saftey Car period. This investigation led to substantial changes in race control, including replacing Michael Masi as the race director and revising the safety car regulations. The inquiry ultimately determined that race officials had wrongly applied the regulations due to human error but upheld the race results.

Max Verstappen’s win at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix marked his first Formula One World Drivers’ Championship, ending Red Bull Racing’s driver championship drought since 2013. While Mercedes claimed their eighth consecutive Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship, setting a new record in the sport’s history.

Max Verstappen's win at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix marked his first Formula One World Drivers' Championship
Max Verstappen’s win at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix marked his first Formula One World Drivers’ Championship

The 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix held special significance as it marked the final race in the illustrious career of Kimi Räikkönen, the 2007 World Champion. The Finnish driver, at 42 years of age, retired from Formula 1 after an impressive two-decade career that included a then-record-setting 349 Grand Prix starts. Räikkönen’s departure added a poignant note to the conclusion of the 2021 season.

Championship on the line

The title race between Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing and Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes was nothing short of historic. As they headed into the final round, both drivers were locked in a gripping battle with an identical 369.5 points. This scenario hadn’t unfolded since 1974 and marked only the second time in F1 history. This meant the championship was perfectly poised for an electrifying showdown in the sport’s 30th final-round decider, a situation not witnessed since 2016.

The championship equation was straightforward: the driver who accumulated the most points in this final race would be crowned the champion. In the event of a points tie, Max Verstappen held the edge due to his nine race wins, surpassing Hamilton’s eight victories before this crucial showdown.

In the Constructors’ Championship, Mercedes led the way on 587.5 points, maintaining a 28-point advantage over Red Bull’s 559.5 points. With 44 points still up for grabs, this marked the first time since 2008 that the season’s final round would determine the Constructors’ Championship.

The fierce on-track battles witnessed throughout the season raised concerns that one of the drivers might resort to a deliberate in-race collision to secure the championship. F1 history had seen such dramatic moments in the past: the 1989 championship was decided by an incident between McLaren teammates Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost at the Japanese Grand Prix; the following year in 1990 the championship saw another collision between Senna and Prost, this time with Prost driving for Ferrari. Other instances include Michael Schumacher‘s collision with Damon Hill in the 1994 Australian Grand Prix and a failed attempt by Schumacher to collide with Jacques Villeneuve at the 1997 European Grand Prix, which resulted in Schumacher’s disqualification from the 1997 season.

In response to these concerns, race director Michael Masi issued a stern warning that Verstappen or Hamilton could face severe sanctions from the FIA if they were found to have orchestrated a deliberate race-ending collision to manipulate the championship result. The potential consequences ranged from championship disqualification to future race bans, underlining the gravity of the situation and emphasising the sport’s commitment to fair and safe competition.

What happened in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix 2021?

Opening laps

As the race began, Lewis Hamilton wasted no time snatching the lead from Max Verstappen into turn 1. This led to Verstappen moving to reclaim his position at the turn 6-7 chicane. Verstappen’s late-breaking enabled him to overtake Hamilton on the outside. However, Hamilton, instead of yielding, cut the corner, resulting in Hamilton rejoining the track significantly ahead of Verstappen. Hamilton argued that Verstappen had pushed him off the track.

Red Bull Racing filed a protest regarding Hamilton’s off-track incident, believing that Hamilton should have immediately surrendered the position back to Verstappen. They received communication via radio that Hamilton had given back any advantage gained by slowing down and allowing Verstappen to close the gap. The incident was subsequently referred to the race stewards, who concluded that no further investigation was warranted.

Following the incident, Hamilton capitalised on the lower tyre degradation on his medium-compound tyres, extending his lead over Verstappen. On the other hand, Verstappen was grappling with more significant tyre degradation due to his use of soft tyres.

Pit stops

With higher tyre degradation, Verstappen made his pit stop at the end of the 13th lap, and Hamilton followed suit one lap later. Both drivers opted for a set of the most durable tyres available: hards. With the lead drivers in the pit lane, Sergio Pérez, Verstappen’s teammate, temporarily took the lead. Pérez received instructions to employ a strategic tactic: to slow down the pursuing Hamilton, to allow Verstappen to narrow the gap to Hamilton, who remained ahead after the first round of pit stops.

2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix: Max vs Lewis
Lewis Hamilton showed superior pace throughout the race

Hamilton managed to catch up with Pérez on the 20th lap. A determined defence from Pérez helped Verstappen significantly by reducing the gap by around 11 seconds after the pit stops to just 1.3 seconds. However, Verstappen could not capitalise on this advantage, as Hamilton’s superior pace gradually extended the gap to four seconds by the race’s midpoint.

On lap 26, Kimi Räikkönen for Alfa Romeo collided with the barriers at turn 6, leading to his retirement due to brake issues. This marked Räikkönen’s 349th and final Formula 1 race.

Lap 35 saw Antonio Giovinazzi retiring his car alongside the track due to gearbox problems, prompting a brief virtual safety car period. Red Bull seized this opportunity to bring Verstappen in for a fresh set of hard-compound tyres without sacrificing his track position. In contrast, Mercedes chose to keep Hamilton out, prioritising track position over fresh tyres. With the advantage of newer rubber, Verstappen gradually closed the gap after his pit stop, reducing the post-stop deficit from seventeen seconds to eleven. However, catching Hamilton before the race’s end wasn’t enough.

Final laps

On lap 53, Nicholas Latifi, who was in a heated battle with HaasMick Schumacher, crashed at turn 14 due to dirty tyres caused by going off track at turn 9. This brought out the full safety car, and while Hamilton stayed out without pitting to maintain his track position, Verstappen took the opportunity to pit for a fresh set of the softest available tyres.

After Verstappen’s pit stop, he found himself with five lapped cars between himself and Hamilton. However, the lapped drivers were initially informed that they could not overtake while race marshals cleared debris from the crash. On lap 57, only the five cars of Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc, and Sebastian Vettel, between Hamilton and Verstappen, were allowed to unlap themselves, causing controversy.

Race control then announced that the safety car would enter the pits at the end of the lap to allow for a final lap of green-flag racing. Despite protests from Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, Verstappen utilised his fresh soft tyres to overtake Hamilton at turn 5 and claim the race’s lead, ultimately winning his first World Drivers’ Championship. Hamilton finished in second place, with Carlos Sainz of Ferrari in third and Yuki Tsunoda of AlphaTauri achieving a career-best fourth place.

Although Mercedes gained enough points to secure their eighth consecutive Constructors’ title, the controversy surrounding the safety car and unlapping procedures left some dissatisfied. Over the radio, Wolff appealed to the race director, Michael Masi, to reinstate the order of the penultimate lap, but Masi stood firm, replying: “Toto, it’s called a motor race, ok? We went car racing.”

Safety car controversy

The race itself was nothing short of a thriller. Verstappen and Hamilton traded positions in the opening lap, while tyres and team strategies added a sense of jeopardy at times. Still, it all came down to the final laps, with Hamilton leading and Verstappen closely behind. A dramatic crash from Nicholas Latifi brought out the safety car, and the race order was thrown into chaos. Then, the pivotal moment arrived on the last lap

Here’s where the controversy erupted. Michael Masi made a controversial decision in allowing lapped cars to unlap themselves and green-light the race, leaving Hamilton and Verstappen for a one-lap shootout to the finish. This gave Verstappen a golden opportunity to overtake Hamilton, which he did, securing the championship in the process. The decision stunned Hamilton and Mercedes, as they believed it had unfairly influenced the outcome of the championship.

Why was the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix controversial?

Mercedes lodged a formal protest against the race result, asserting several critical points of contention. They alleged that Verstappen had overtaken Hamilton during the safety car period. They also argued that Michael Masi, the race director, had violated safety car procedures by permitting only the cars directly ahead of Verstappen to unlap themselves rather than all lapped cars, as required in the race regulations. Furthermore, Mercedes contended that according to those regulations, the safety car should have waited until the following lap to return to the pit lane, which would have resulted in Hamilton winning the race. Had Hamilton pitted, Verstappen would undoubtedly have stayed out, believing the closing laps would follow the official regulations.

Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

The first issue, concerning Verstappen’s alleged overtake during the safety car period, was dismissed because Verstappen was not ahead when the safety car period ended. However, the second issue raised significant debate, leading Mercedes to enlist legal counsel for their protest. Mercedes argued that if a message instructing lapped cars to overtake is issued under Article 48.12, all lapped cars must comply. They further asserted that the safety car should have waited until the end of the following lap before returning to the pit lane. Mercedes contended that if this process had been followed, Hamilton would have emerged as the race winner and, consequently, the champion. They requested an amendment to the race classification to reflect this.

In response, Red Bull presented counterarguments. They maintained that, according to the regulation, Article 48.12 required “any cars” to overtake, not necessarily “all cars.” Red Bull also pointed to Article 48.13, which governs the withdrawal of the safety car, asserting that it takes precedence over Article 48.12. Additionally, they referenced Article 15.3, which grants the race director overriding authority over the use of the safety car. Red Bull contended that even if all eight lapped cars had been allowed to unlap, the race result would not have changed.

Michael Masi defended his position by emphasizing that the purpose of Article 48.12 was to remove cars that “interfered” with the drivers on the lead lap. He argued that all F1 teams had reached a consensus that races should ideally conclude under racing conditions.

The stewards rejected the protest based on articles 48.13 and 15.3 in the Formula One sporting regulations, which give the race director the ultimate authority to modify safety car procedures as necessary and declare the race winner. If Hamilton were declared the winner at lap 57, it would have resulted in a retrospective shortening of the race. As a result, Verstappen was provisionally declared the world champion, pending any appeals. Mercedes announced their intention to appeal to the FIA’s International Court of Appeal within 96 hours after the race, citing potential violations of Article 15 of the International Sporting Code and Article 10 of the FIA’s Judicial and Disciplinary Code.

Upon learning of the FIA’s plans to conduct a comprehensive examination and clarify the incident and their admission that the scandal was damaging the sport’s reputation, Mercedes opted not to pursue their appeal. On December 16th, several hours before the submission deadline, the team decided to withdraw their protest.

Changes to F1 rules for 2022

In the wake of the controversy surrounding the final lap of the 2021 season, Formula 1 made significant changes to its rules for the 2022 season to avoid a similar situation. Formula 1 Sporting Regulations were updated to clarify that “all” and not “any” cars must be permitted to unlap themselves. Additionally, Formula 1 increased the transparency and consistency of race steward decisions, aiming to avoid controversial rulings that could affect the championship outcome.

What happened to Michael Massi?

There was also a significant restructuring of race control in Formula 1. As part of this reorganisation, Michael Masi was removed from the role of race director. Instead, Eduardo Freitas and Niels Wittich began alternating in the position. Additionally, former deputy race director Herbie Blash assumed a permanent advisory role. As part of these changes, a new virtual race control system was introduced, and guidelines were implemented to limit communication between Formula One teams and the race director to reduce lobbying efforts.

2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix race results

133Max VerstappenRed Bull Racing Honda581:30:17.34526
244Lewis HamiltonMercedes58+2.256s18
355Carlos SainzFerrari58+5.173s15
422Yuki TsunodaAlphaTauri Honda58+5.692s12
510Pierre GaslyAlphaTauri Honda58+6.531s10
677Valtteri BottasMercedes58+7.463s8
74Lando NorrisMcLaren Mercedes58+59.200s6
814Fernando AlonsoAlpine Renault58+61.708s4
931Esteban OconAlpine Renault58+64.026s2
1016Charles LeclercFerrari58+66.057s1
115Sebastian VettelAston Martin Mercedes58+67.527s0
123Daniel RicciardoMcLaren Mercedes57+1 lap0
1318Lance StrollAston Martin Mercedes57+1 lap0
1447Mick SchumacherHaas Ferrari57+1 lap0
1511Sergio PerezRed Bull Racing Honda55DNF0
NC6Nicholas LatifiWilliams Mercedes50DNF0
NC99Antonio GiovinazziAlfa Romeo Racing Ferrari33DNF0
NC63George RussellWilliams Mercedes26DNF0
NC7Kimi RäikkönenAlfa Romeo Racing Ferrari25DNF0
NC9Nikita MazepinHaas Ferrari0DNS0
Note: Verstappen scored an additional point for setting the fastest lap of the race. Mazepin withdrew prior to the start of the Grand Prix following a positive COVID test.

2021 Final Championship Standings

2021 Final Drivers’ Championship Standings

2021 Final Constructors’ Championship Standings

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About The Author

Chief Editor

Ben Bush

Ben is our chief editor specialising in F1 from the 1990s to the modern era. Ben has been following Formula 1 since 1986 and is an avid researcher who loves understanding the technology that makes it one of the most exciting motorsport on the planet. He listens to podcasts about F1 on a daily basis, and enjoys reading books from the inspirational Adrian Newey to former F1 drivers.

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