6 of the biggest discussion points of the best Formula 1 season in 20 years.
The 2021 Formula 1 season was the most exciting in two decades. Not since the battles of Schumacher and Hakkinen, Schumacher and Hill, Prost and Senna, or Lauda and Hunt have we seen a rivalry such as the one between Max Verstappen and Sir Lewis Hamilton. This season we have witnessed two absolute titans battling it out in a war of the ages, but there's much to look back on with fondness and frustration. These are the good, the bad, and the ugly of the 2021 Formula 1 season.
Fans take sides, and throughout the season we've witnessed both sides wage a war of words. Mercedes fans claim Max had the stronger car in his RB16B while Red Bull fans will argue Lewis' Mercedes-AMG W12 E-Performance was by far the stronger machine. The tides ebbed and flowed from circuit to circuit, much in the same way things used to favor manufacturers based on their tire choices - back when Michelin and Bridgestone were both in F1 rather than there being a single tire supplier. But the fact remains that both Lewis and Max managed to eke performance out of their cars that no one else could. Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez were racing in the same cars as their teammates, but race after race, Lewis and Max were in a class of their own. Bottas and Perez are both good drivers, but the fact that they were largely caught up in what the rest of the pack were doing, in some instances even losing out to McLaren, Ferrari, and Alpha Tauri, shows that they are ordinary drivers. Max and Lewis are something else.
These two drivers pushed the limits of their cars, their tires, the conditions, and importantly, themselves. Whether it was Max's balls-to-the-wall maximum attack at circuits like Monaco or Jeddah Corniche, or Lewis' ability to reel in Max by one to two seconds a lap in the dying phases of a race where he looked to have lost it early on, these two drivers transcended the abilities of their cars. How else could the two of them routinely pull 20-second gaps on the rest of the pack within 10 laps of the start? The F1 grid comprises 20 of the world's best drivers, yet two stood out head and shoulders above the rest. Lewis has seven titles to his name, 103 pole positions, and 103 victories. These numbers prove that he is an all-time great (one of several); this fact is undeniable. But a 24-year-old Max Verstappen went toe-to-toe with him for 22 races across the globe, and it all came down to the final lap in Abu Dhabi to separate them. We witnessed greatness, and you'd have to be blind to say otherwise.
Over the 3,409 miles run by these two drivers in races where both of them finished, just nine seconds separated them. Nine.
With the tensions between the two title protagonists growing each and every race and battles being waged on the track and in the stewards' offices, it became easy to forget that there were 18 other drivers on the grid and eight other teams all fighting for glory. Some of the midfield battles were often more exciting than the one up front, and these have given us glimpses of potential future champions.
Lando Norris deserves particular mention. In a season when the likes of Esteban Ocon managed to secure victory, Norris was seemingly robbed of his maiden 1st place in Sochi when rain sent him off the track, only to allow Lewis to snatch the top step of the podium. But Lando has been a solid racer the entire season, stepping up his game in a big way, challenging teammate Daniel Ricciardo, and showing humility despite the frustration he has endured, along with a lot of bad luck. Lando's racecraft belies his youth, and it's only a matter of time before he etches his name into the history books as a world champion.
The same can be said of George Russell. He'll be moving to Mercedes-AMG next year, but lest we forget, he was driving a Williams in 2021 that was never genuinely competitive with anyone but the Alfa Romeos. George routinely outperformed teammate Nicolas Latifi, making a regular habit of getting into Q3 in qualifying despite being in a slower car. He proved his mettle on more than one occasion and was justly rewarded with his first podium at Spa, where his stellar qualifying in less-than-ideal circumstances was enough to win him some points.
The F1 field has a great deal of depth to it, and Charles Leclerc, Carlos Sainz Jr., Yuki Tsunoda, and Pierre Gasly have all shown extraordinary promise this season. Ferrari improved at the tail end of it all, as did Alpha Tauri, and these drivers all showed their ability to fight cleanly and keep cool heads under pressure. With so much talent in the field, the future of F1 looks bright. But the saddest reality of all is that the likelihood of all these talented drivers finding themselves behind the wheel of a championship-challenging car is highly unlikely, meaning their talent may never reach the heights it deserves.
Armchair critics will always feel they know better when it comes to how sporting codes should be managed and refereed. In this regard, the team officiating F1 races has possibly the toughest job of all. It's something you couldn't fully comprehend unless you've been involved with officiating high-level professional sports, where you have to balance the demands of not only the competitors, but also the sponsors, the organizers, the advertisers, the broadcasters, and the interests of the company that oversees it all, Liberty Media. At the end of the day, the officials are there to make the decisions that are in the best interests of fair sport and the safety of the drivers, without compromising the business case surrounding it all. That said, Michael Masi, F1's Race Director, Safety Delegate, Permanent Starter, and head of the F1 Technical Department and his team were not consistent this year.
Over the course of the final few races, many a team boss lamented the passing of the late Charlie Whiting, who served in Masi's post for 25 years before he passed away in 2019. They all praised his experience, his general oversight, and his ability to make the right decision under immense pressure. Sadly for Masi, this season was possibly the toughest we've witnessed in 20 years and one in which he and his team of stewards were pushed to the extreme. They were never going to please everyone, but the way in which decisions were judged erratically across different legs of the series was not pleasant to watch. The most important rule of officiating in sports is to be consistent, and the F1 officials lacked in this department. Towards the end of the season, they did their best to act impartially and try to prevent politics from deciding the championship, but it was too little, too late. Masi et al had not ruled with the fairness and firmness required with so much at stake.
You can't expect Masi to have stepped into his role with the same experience Whiting had, and it's harsh to hold him to the gold standard Charlie set over more than two decades. What we can be sure of is that this season will have been a massive learning curve for Masi, and we can only hope that his experience from this year makes F1 going forward the best it's ever been.
But one thing is for certain, tracks like Saudi Arabia and the way the track marshals failed to clean up incidents are not good for the sport. As Motorsport Director of F1, Masi needs to take a stand for good racing rather than merely prioritizing strong foreign investment. That means selecting better tracks and insisting on better standards across the board. It's a tough job, but it's the one he signed up to do.
Formula 1 is now more accessible than ever - thanks to Liberty Media and Drive to Survive - and we see so much more thanks to behind-the-scenes bits and bobs on social media from the teams themselves. But what we've seen from Toto Wolff and Christian Horner this season has been petty, childish, and against the gentlemanly image the sport once portrayed. It's been like watching a soap opera or a teen drama series, with snide comments, catty remarks, and running to the teacher every time someone said something they didn't like. The war of words saw tempers flare, and very often, the end of each race showed us poor sportsmanship more than anything else.
We remember a time when the likes of Frank Williams, Ron Dennis, Jean Todt and so many more seemed to run their teams with grace and dignity. The battles on the track were fierce, but team bosses shook hands, congratulated the winners, and were good sports even in the face of unfavorable outcomes.
You expect to see driver's tempers flare. Who can forget Schumacher charging across to Coulthard in the pitlane after famously crashing into him in the pouring rain? Or that footage of Hakkinen lecturing Schumacher on how his driving was dirty. But they were still gentlemen, and they shook off the losses and came back fighting the next time out.
We've by no means seen the gold standard of sportsmanship this season from the drivers. Both Lewis and Max have shown poor form in their title challenge - although full credit goes to Lewis for taking five minutes to celebrate Max's victory on the podium in Abu Dhabi. But the team bosses are supposed to lead by example. Toto and Christian have been poor in this regard, and they need to hold themselves to a higher standard. With F1 viewership at its highest, we need the best example set by those in charge.
While the 2021 season has been exciting, it's been a tough battle. Many of the circuits are not conducive to wheel-to-wheel battling, and the current aerodynamic rules mean cars can't follow one another without suffering massive losses of grip and overheating. Overtaking now doesn't happen around corners, but rather on straights when DRS is active. That's not real racing. The fact that modern F1 cars are about the size of a Mercedes-Benz GLE-Class SUV also means that on tight circuits like Monaco, overtaking opportunities are almost nil. The fact that we've seen such close battles this season is a testament more to driver dedication than F1 being conducive to good racing. This needs to change.
Additionally, the turbo era has been largely boring and one-sided, with Hamilton seldom seeing a true challenge because of Mercedes' utter dominance for many years. That's one reason why 2021 was so exciting because Red Bull and Verstappen were actually capable of challenging Mercedes.
2022 will see an entirely new ruleset in place, with a new vehicle design, different regulations governing aerodynamic properties, and even new 18-inch wheels replacing the 13s we've seen in F1 for decades. The new aero rules are the most exciting prospect as they are said to reduce turbulent air substantially for following cars, which should mean better racing action. Early simulator runs from many drivers also point towards the new cars being spikier in their behavior, which means 2022 should yield less of an "easy cruising" type of drive. That sounds like a win to us.
Whenever a new ruleset comes into play, it's entirely possible that the hierarchy of team dominance will be shaken up. The introduction of the turbo engines eight years ago saw Mercedes-AMG run rampant and claim every constructor's championship since, while for the four preceding years, Red Bull Racing and Vettel were the man and team to beat. In 2022, might we see someone else at the top? We're hoping the rules don't favor one constructor over another, as we'd love to see four or five teams all on a level playing field. That ought to separate the best drivers from the rest.
After every race, you'll hear fanboys saying things like: "Max wouldn't have won if *insert random event* had happened" and "Lewis didn't deserve *insert whatever race win* because Max had an *insert accident/blowout/engine failure." Luck is part of Formula 1, and any other sport for that matter. Period.
In Abu Dhabi, accidents happened at the right time for Max to be able to pit. But in Baku, Max's tire blew out for no reason when he was in for a clear shot at the win. At the end of the day, great drivers prevail despite luck, whether it's now, next year, or in three years' time. That's why Lando Norris' first victory will come eventually, and it will be followed by dozens thereafter.
The bad luck of one driver does not diminish the achievements of another, and F1 fans need to stop bashing drivers with negative comments just because Lady Luck smiled on them instead of another. It happens. It's life. More importantly, it's motorsport. If everything were predictable, it would be boring.
Not everything is within our control, and that's what makes things exciting. We've seen some of F1s best drivers never achieve a title, or achieve only one when they should've had many, all because their tires weren't as good, or because the rain came down a few minutes too soon. The unpredictability makes the sport what it is, and we should embrace good racing for that rather than making the environment toxic.
98 days separate the end of the 2021 season and the start of the 2022 calendar. In that time, the pit crews and engineers will be working flat out on the new cars with the new regulations. Michael Masi will be poring over hours of race footage to see how next season can be improved. We can look forward to a new season of Drive to Survive on Netflix, albeit one that will be missing the champion, Max Verstappen after he asked for his privacy to be respected so he can focus on racing. The sport is evolving, and we can only hope things get better.
2021's final results may not have been the closest in history - Kimi Raikkonen won his lone title by a single point in 2007 - but it was the closest we've seen in many other ways. One podium, one race win, and in the end, one lap separated two giants of the sport, and if that's a sign of things to come, we can't wait to see what happens next.