For a while, Formula 1 had been struggling with what can perhaps be described as an ‘entertainment problem’. The complete dominance of Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton over the past few years meant even the most ardent fans of the sport had found themselves yawning their way through certain races, while casual supporters were falling by the wayside as Hamilton cruised to a 124-point championship victory in 2020.
Then, the 2021 Formula 1 season happened. A campaign so heavily laced in drama, controversy, spectacle, and suspense that Netflix – who film the popular ‘Drive to Survive’ series covering the sport – must wonder whether they’d accidentally been on the set of a Hollywood blockbuster the entire time instead.
But what exactly made the F1 season of 2021 the best there’s ever been? Below, we look at the closest – and arguably most controversial – title fight of any sporting season ever (let alone just F1), a series of magical moments, and a return to the fore of engaging racing.
To get an engaging title fight in F1, you need two suitable protagonists: in this case, seven-time world champion, Lewis Hamilton, and current F1 golden child, Max Verstappen. You also, crucially, need two suitable cars. Over the last seven years, the latter had been firmly lacking, with Mercedes and (largely) Hamilton completely dominant. However, 2021 finally saw Red Bull Racing develop a car that could challenge the imperious Silver Arrows.
The relative parity between cars created an unprecedented duel between the two drivers, captivating audiences worldwide for the duration of the season. Mercedes and Hamilton started stronger, then Red Bull and Verstappen found form mid-season. Verstappen’s uncompromising driving styling mixed with Hamilton’s unwillingness to back down resulted in serious collisions between the pair at Silverstone, Monza, and Saudi Arabia, with plenty of other near misses in the meantime.
Amid the wheel-to-wheel racing, rising tensions between Hamilton and Verstappen, and an ongoing feud between team principals Toto Wolff and Christian Horner, the two somehow managed to enter the season finale exactly level on points in the F1 Driver Standings.
But the true controversy was yet to come at the final race in Abu Dhabi, where a series of safety cars and questionable decisions from Race Director Michael Masi left Hamilton – who was completely in control of the race throughout – exposed to Verstappen on the final lap. The Dutchman – on new soft tyres to Hamilton’s older hards – completed a daring overtake to win his first F1 Drivers’ Championship in the most dramatic fashion possible.
The seemingly artificially produced scenario of the last moments of the final race has been enough to mar the entire season for some more hardened F1 fans, and discussion will no doubt rage on for months and years over what should’ve happened. One thing is for sure, though - the epic rivalry between Hamilton and Verstappen through the campaign and the chaos surrounding the end of their epic battle means the Formula 1 2021 season will go down as one of the greatest – and most contentious – ever.
Beyond Red Bull finding enough pace in 2021 to challenge Mercedes and take the title, many of the midfield teams made positive steps towards becoming truly competitive, which can only be good for the sport as a whole.
Highlights for the midfield teams in 2021 include a sensational 1-2 (the only 1-2 of the year) for McLaren in Italy, a shock win for Alpine’s Esteban Ocon in Hungary, and a hometown pole for Monegasque Charles LeClerc as eventual pole-position finisher in the Constructor’s Championship, Ferrari, in Monaco.
With some notable results coming from the newly returning Aston Martin, Red Bull’s AlphaTauri, and even a few plucky efforts from Williams, the competitive state of F1 is currently the best it’s been in a long time.
As Dutch fans will tell you, bright orange will feature strongly in F1’s future with Max Verstappen at the top of the sport. But Verstappen and old advert lines aside, the amount of young talent currently residing in the sport means there are countless champions-elect currently on the grid – all of whom had their share of big moments in the 2021 F1 season.
The Brits have plenty to be excited about with new Mercedes-man George Russell and McLaren’s prodigy Lando Norris both seeming to be future-title-worthy at 23 and 22 years old, respectively. Meanwhile, Alpine’s Esteban Ocon, AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly, and Ferrari’s young pairing of Charles LeClerc and Carlos Sainz have all shown not only race-winning potential but title-winning potential, too.
It’s a crowded room, for sure, but one that fans hope will remain full as the sport seeks to generate greater parity between the cars. If it succeeds, who knows who the champions of the future will be?
Finally, the return of fans to the Formula 1 season in 2021 brought vibrancy and atmosphere back to the sport to make it an incredible year both on-track and off.
Between a 140,000-strong capacity crowd cheering on Hamilton to victory at Silverstone and Verstappen’s Orange Army bringing football-fan levels of passion to the likes of Zandvoort and other European races, we were reminded just how important fans are for generating a worthy spectacle around racing.
Let’s hope the same energy carries into the 2022 campaign.
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