One of the most high-profile ends to a thoroughly absorbing season only serves to whet the appetite for what lies ahead in 2022
Of all the sports which might be said to have gone quietly into year’s end, Formula One is absolutely not one of them.
Perhaps the most memorable season in recent years climaxed with a thrilling, ridiculous, contentious and ultimately triumphant close for Red Bull and Max Verstappen, or simply with devastating defeat for Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton and his attempts to set a new record with an eighth world title.
That sentence alone covers a huge amount of what took centre stage throughout the 2021 F1 season, yet simultaneously doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of everything that hit the headlines in the sport.
Ultimately, elite athletes compete to win and Verstappen’s story is a worthy success for motor racing itself. He claimed the most Grand Prix victories as well as the most championship points, topping the racing world at 24 years old having started his F1 career at an age which simply isn’t even allowed any longer.
The way he and Hamilton fought a back-and-forth title race over the last few months of the year was utterly gripping and relentlessly close, sometimes metaphorically so – and at other times all too literally: forcing each other off track, overtaking to finish one-two on the podium and an almost inexplicable encounter which saw Verstappen’s car land on top of Hamilton’s at Monza.
Title rivals they were on the track, but there was also constant give-and-take discourse in press conferences and on the radio which kept spectators gripped throughout the year.
And those onlookers only grew in number during 2021.
Clearly a concerted push from the sport’s authorities, an upswell of interest came via social media, constant traditional media releases and even an ongoing Netflix docu-series, opening F1 up to an entirely new audience and captivating them with the reality of the race come the weekend. That seemingly hasn’t come at the expense of long-term fans though, with all those eyes keen to follow whether Michael Schumacher’s legacy would be surpassed entirely or if the newest crop of British racers could compare with the stars of yesteryear.
Above and around all of those on-track incidents and edge-of-the-seat video clips were the omnipresent voices of the two most prominent team bosses: Toto Wolff of Mercedes and Christian Horner from Red Bull.
While undoubtedly adding to the sense of rivalry and a closely-fought season, they at times bordered on the banal with the constant sniping, appealing and blaming. Perhaps even that was for show at times, a carefully constructed means of luring back in the aforementioned eyes and minds of those who might otherwise wander when races were two weeks apart.
Headlines from soundbites increasingly wrote themselves as the season went on and the title race grew closer, and by the end of it all even the F1 managing director of motor sports had had enough of the pair. They – or other team bosses – will likely no longer be permitted to contact the race director during Grands Prix, following on from the pressure they each exerted in favour of their drivers on the final weekend in Abu Dhabi.
Of course, that weekend and the race director Michael Masi’s decisions at the Yas Marina Circuit perhaps point to one of the other problems of the season: the rulebook.
Given the newly established army of fans tuning in, it was at time incomprehensible to unravel who was at fault for what – and, in turn, what their punishment might be. Big calls from the stewards in races is only one side of it; there was also clear inconsistency in applying rules.
Masi opting to unlap only the cars between Verstappen and Hamilton in Abu Dhabi was the most prominent example, but what of the Dutch driver being fined €50,000 (£42,000) for touching the Brit’s car following qualifying in Brazil? Such “inquisitiveness” has become a regular occurrence, Horner noted, yet it was only here that the rule against it was enforced.
Equally, the drivers themselves don’t even profess to know how all the rules are applied, with Carlos Sainz notably pointing out that they don’t “fully understand” where boundaries are on overtaking. If the stars of the show themselves aren’t even clear on what’s acceptable and what’s not, where is the hope for the casual viewer trying to get involved on a more regular basis? It’s one of several areas with scope for improvement in 2022 and beyond.
This past year, however, had more than enough stand-out moments and memories to last, even ignoring the contributions from the big two.
From Fernando Alonso delighting his fans with third in Qatar after they predicted a podium place for him, to Esteban Ocon’s maiden win at the Hungaroring circuit and George Russell improving and impressing enough to earn a move to Mercedes for next season, there were no shortage of reasons for excitement as F1 roamed across the globe.
In looking ahead as to which team and individuals might continue their own success stories and provide positives for next year, it’s hard to look beyond McLaren.
Lando Norris clocked up four podium finishes and while teammate Daniel Ricciardo only managed a single one, it was a huge one: a victory and a one-two finish for the team at Monza after Hamilton and Verstappen took each other out. It was fast approaching a decade since McLaren’s last Grand Prix victory and they finished the season fourth in the constructor standings.
Hope, then, belongs to more than just Verstappen, Red Bull and Mercedes for next year – with Hamilton himself yet to officially declare he’ll be back on the track rather than retire.
New rule changes are coming to Formula One in 2022. A new race director might well be, too. And so too a new car design, delayed for a year due to Covid but coming soon to encourage and enable closer racing and more overtaking.
The 2021 season finished in the most epic way imaginable, but the promise is of more, much more yet to come.