c/o McLaren

c/o McLaren

After a long year of on-track and off-track dramatics, an unbelievably close championship battle, and 21 races around the world, the 2021 Formula One (F1) season is finally coming to an end. In the 22nd and final round of the championship, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix (GP) is scheduled to be held at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, from Friday, Dec. 10 to Sunday, Dec. 12, and will determine whether Lewis Hamilton or Max Verstappen will become the 2021 World Drivers’ Champion (WDC).

With the two drivers going into the season finale level in the points standings, whoever finishes higher (in the top ten) will take the title. If Hamilton wins, he will secure a record-breaking eighth world championship (and his seventh consecutive title), just a year after tying Michael Schumacher’s record for most world championships by winning his seventh title at the 2020 Turkish GP. If Verstappen wins, the Dutch driver will earn his first ever world championship title and would also win Red Bull their first World Constructors’ Championship (WCC) title since Sebastian Vettel’s four consecutive championships from 2010 to 2013. 

Given that the record for the most wins at the Yas Marina Circuit is currently held by Hamilton, with five wins in Abu Dhabi, it may seem like the past is pointing to the British driver coming out ahead in the final race and thus, in the championship battle. However, Verstappen won last year’s 2020 Abu Dhabi GP, bringing a non-Mercedes winner to Abu Dhabi for the first time since 2013 and raising questions about Mercedes’ strength at a track that has historically favored their cars.

Though the circuit itself has been criticized for often being an uneventful closing race to the season, changes have been made to multiple corners ahead of the 2021 GP that will hopefully enhance the quality and excitement of the racing that will come on Sunday. The stakes are immense for both Hamilton and Verstappen, but the final race will also be nerve-wracking for their respective teams as Mercedes attempt to seal their eighth consecutive Constructors’ Championship while Red Bull tries everything possible to prevent that from happening.

With significant design changes to the cars and an overhaul of technical regulations intended to allow for closer racing between cars impending for the 2022 season, the spread of the grid will likely see some dramatic changes next year. This final race in Abu Dhabi presents a last look at the current state of the F1 grid and will bring one of the most exciting seasons of the hybrid era to a closely watched conclusion. 

2021 Drivers’ Championship 

When F1 fans look back on this season, Hamilton and Verstappen will undoubtedly be the first names to come to mind. The two championship contenders have brought one of the closest title fights in recent memory, although Vettel’s Ferrari did raise a strong challenge to Hamilton in 2017 and 2018. This year’s Abu Dhabi GP will be the first time since 1974 that the two championship leaders have gone into the final race with an equal number of points, marking how tight the fight between Hamilton and Verstappen has been.

The two have certainly gotten too close for comfort at times, as in Silverstone, when the two collided and Verstappen was sent crashing out of the race, or in Monza, when both cars were taken out after clashing at the first chicane. Given that Hamilton has already had to take avoiding action multiple times throughout the year to prevent damage to his car from Verstappen’s aggressive driving, he will need to be extra cautious in Abu Dhabi in case Verstappen decides to make similarly overambitious moves. However, their relationship on track has provided fans with a hypnotizing rivalry and a drama-filled season. Hamilton should surely be proud of his performance in Brazil after an incredibly difficult weekend, along with his win at his home race in Silverstone, while Verstappen will likely look back fondly on his home win at Zandvoort after the track was brought back to the F1 calendar this year. 

Ultimately, I believe that Hamilton will find a way to come out on top on Sunday and win a historical eighth world championship title, especially after having closed the points gap between himself and Verstappen over the course of the final triple header of the season and the penultimate race in Saudi Arabia. However, whatever happens in Abu Dhabi, the extent to which these two drivers have separated themselves from the rest of the field this season cannot be understated. Though it is true that the Mercedes and Red Bull cars are miles ahead of the other teams in terms of pure pace, Hamilton and Verstappen have sped off alone and opened a pit stop’s worth of a gap to the cars behind at multiple races this season, pointing to the skill and ability that separates these two from both their respective teammates and the rest of the grid.

While Sergio Perez took a while to get adjusted to his new seat at Red Bull, Valtteri Bottas, in his last season for Mercedes, has generally remained as reliable as ever as Hamilton’s wingman on track. Though it will not have been easy for Bottas to take second priority behind Hamilton over the five years of their time as teammates, he seems pleased with his move to Alfa Romeo for 2022 on a multi-year deal, which gives him a security in F1 that he has not had with his repeated one-year Mercedes contracts. Incredibly, Bottas has managed to get through to Q3 in every single qualifying session he has participated in for Mercedes, and will want to extend that to a Q3 showing and hopefully a front row lockout by the Mercedes teammates in his final race for the team. 

Perez, whose contract was renewed by Red Bull for the 2022 season, will need to try his best to support his teammate during the race in Abu Dhabi since Bottas will surely do the same for Hamilton. Though the Mexican driver showed some struggles in the earlier races, he has slowly been able to adjust to the Red Bull car and will hope to demonstrate that growth in the final race. 

Behind the championship leaders in the upper half of the midfield, the Ferrari drivers have certainly been the strongest in the second half of the season. In his first season for the Scuderia, Carlos Sainz has not been too far off of Charles Leclerc’s pace, and has played a key role in helping the team challenge McLaren. 

On the opposite side of that Constructors’ rivalry, Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris have formed one of the more intriguing pairings of the season. Though Ricciardo was surprisingly outperformed by Norris through the first portion of the season and struggled to match the young British driver in both qualifying and race pace, the Australian driver has seemed to find his footing towards the end of 2021 and will look back on this season with his win at the Italian GP as the highlight of his year. Norris, who has yet to earn his first win in F1, may be rueing that lost opportunity, but the 1–2 finish that McLaren earned in Monza was one of the brightest moments of the season for the team as a whole. 

Further back in the midfield, though Pierre Gasly may only be sitting in ninth in the standings as of the results of the Saudi Arabia GP, he has certainly impressed many with his qualifying performances this year, especially after becoming a regular face in Q3. Gasly will hope to build on this year’s strong performances next season, when he will continue to lead the Alpha Tauri team and serve as a guiding point for teammate Yuki Tsunoda. 

Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso made his return to F1 this year after leaving F1 following an unsuccessful stint with McLaren in 2018. Though many were uncertain of how the now 40-year-old Alonso would perform upon his return to the sport, he has shown that he is still a fighter, even if most of his on-track battles took place in the midfield this year, and his podium at the Qatar GP was rightfully earned. 

Alonso’s teammate Esteban Ocon, who was signed by Alpine for a three-year contract in the middle of the season and will remain with the French team through the 2024 season, has also had a great season and managed to hold his own against his world champion teammate. Ocon’s first F1 win at the 2021 Hungarian GP was another highlight for the team and signaled that they may be ones to watch ahead of the 2022 regulation changes.

Just behind the Alpine drivers in the standings, four-time world champion Vettel, who was dropped by Ferrari last year and found a new seat with Aston Martin, has had a season of ups and downs. Due to the lack of pace in Aston Martin’s 2021 car, Vettel has been unable to fight at the front, and has instead been limited to battles in the lower midfield for much of the season. However, his podium in Baku this season and the renewed enthusiasm for driving that he has demonstrated across the other races showed that he is still a fighter and can never be counted out, particularly if Aston Martin develops a quicker car in 2022. While Vettel’s season includes the lowlight of being disqualified from what would have been his second podium of the season in Hungary after his car failed to provide the necessary fuel sample after the race, he will be happy to have shown his pace by leading his teammate Lance Stroll in their head-to-head qualifying and points finishes.

Among the backmarkers, Kimi Räikkönen will surely draw the most attention during the Abu Dhabi GP, since it will mark his final race in F1 after 20 years in the sport. The Finnish driver, who holds the record for the most race starts in F1 history at 348, will leave behind the additional legacy of his 2007 championship title with Ferrari, 21 wins, and 103 podiums. Though it is unfortunate that his teammate, Antonio Giovinazzi, will also not be returning to F1 next year after being replaced by incoming rookie Guanyu Zhou, Giovinazzi has had some strong moments throughout this season and will generally be remembered as a fairly strong driver. As the Italian heads off to Formula E, Zhou will become the first Chinese driver in F1 history, marking a significant moment for the grid. 

Of this year’s rookies, Mick Schumacher drew by far the most media attention before the start of the season because of the fact that he would be bringing the Schumacher name back to F1. While he may not have started out his F1 career in the best car on the grid, he is surely making his father and family proud by just making the move to F1 after winning the 2020 Formula 2 Championship. Schumacher has also thoroughly outperformed fellow rookie teammate, Nikita Mazepin, at almost every single race this season, demonstrating that he is capable and ready to fight further up the grid.

WDC Predictions: 

  1. Lewis Hamilton 
  2. Max Verstappen 
  3. Valtteri Bottas 
  4. Sergio Perez 
  5. Charles Leclerc 
  6. Lando Norris 
  7. Carlos Sainz 
  8. Daniel Ricciardo 
  9. Pierre Gasly 
  10. Fernando Alonso
  11. Esteban Ocon
  12. Sebastian Vettel
  13. Lance Stroll
  14. Yuki Tsunoda
  15. George Russell 
  16. Kimi Räikkönen 
  17. Nicholas Latifi
  18. Antonio Giovinazzi
  19. Mick Schumacher
  20. Robert Kubica
  21. Nikita Mazepin

Constructors’ Championship 

In the Constructors’ Championship, the most closely watched battle of the season has, of course, been between Mercedes and Red Bull. Mercedes’ double podium finish at the Saudi Arabia GP means that there is a 28-point gap between the two teams heading into the season finale, which will not be an easy distance for Red Bull to make up in the last race. 

Though Red Bull surprised the grid by winning most of the races in the first half of the season, with five wins in a row from Monaco through Austria, Mercedes have managed to discover new pace in the latter half of the season. Coming off the momentum of Hamilton’s wins in Brazil, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, the team headquartered at Brackley will surely be looking to maintain that newfound pace and bring home their eighth consecutive Constructors’ Championship title. 

Having won every other Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championship in the hybrid era from 2014 to 2020, the team will be looking to seal this year’s title before the F1 technical regulations are overhauled in 2022.  

While it does seem that Mercedes, who holds the record among the constructors for the most wins at the Abu Dhabi GP with six, has a better chance of coming out on top on Sunday, Red Bull will surely not be giving up the championship without a fight. The Milton Keynes-based team will need to depend on both Verstappen and Perez finishing well if they want to prevent Mercedes from taking another Constructors’ title.  

Just behind the two championship leaders, the next closest battle has been between Ferrari and McLaren, with the Italian team finding more pace further into the season. Ferrari now lead McLaren by 38.5 points heading into the final race and appear likely to stay ahead of the Woking team to bring home a third place finish in the Constructors’ Championship. This will mark a significant comeback from Ferrari’s deeply disappointing 2020 season, where they finished sixth in the Constructors’ Championship in a shocking fall for the team that, even until 2018, had been fighting for the title with Mercedes. 

On the other hand, McLaren may end the year disappointed, particularly since they finished last year’s season in third place as a result of Ferrari’s drastic lack of pace. Both Ferrari and McLaren will be keeping the same driver lineup going into 2022, which the teams will be hoping will provide stability through the changing regulations. 

Behind McLaren, Alpine have managed to keep ahead of Alpha Tauri after the last few races to find themselves in fifth place heading into Abu Dhabi. The French team, which rebranded from the Renault name at the start of this season, are likely to finish ahead of Alpha Tauri as long as they don’t make any crucial strategy mistakes in the final race. However, Alpha Tauri should not be disappointed with their performance this season and can look forward to drawing on the stability of keeping their current lineup as F1 enters an era of new regulations. 

Towards the back end of the midfield, Aston Martin has been the most disappointing team this year. Though expectations for the British team were high throughout their rebranding phase from Racing Point to Aston Martin, they have shown that their qualifying and race pace this year is closer to the backmarkers than the rest of the midfield. For a team that used to be known for being able to go far on race weekends with little funding, gaining financial security has not brought them real improvements. Aston Martin will need to show some serious advances in their technical design and tighten their race strategies in order to find their way back to the fourth place finish they earned in the 2020 Constructors’ Championship under the Racing Point name. 

Williams, who will lose Russell to Mercedes next year as he moves to partner Hamilton, announced that the team had signed former Red Bull driver Alex Albon for the next year to join Latifi. The team should be pleased with their lineup for 2022 given Albon’s strength as a driver. Though Albon left the grid for 2021 after his performance as Verstappen’s teammate in his rookie year was not enough to convince Red Bull to keep him on for another year, he will surely be ready to come back to the sport and prove his ability. 

At the very back of the grid, Hass have been shockingly slow throughout the season in both qualifying sessions and races. Though this may have been inevitable given that the team had signed two rookies for this season, the 2021 Haas car was also much slower and seemingly more difficult to drive than the other cars. The team will need to find some way of improving their car, possibly through their connections to their engine supplier Ferrari, if they want to give their continuing lineup of Schumacher and Mazepin a chance at fighting with the other teams in 2022. 

WCC Predictions: 

  1. Mercedes 
  2. Red Bull 
  3. Ferrari 
  4. McLaren
  5. Alpine
  6. Alpha Tauri
  7. Aston Martin
  8. Williams
  9. Alfa Romeo
  10. Haas 

Jiyu Shin can be reached at jshin01@wesleyan.edu