Max Verstappen
Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing celebrate after winning the Formula One Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit on December 12, 2021. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen claimed his first Formula One Drivers’ Championship with a dramatic and controversial last-lap victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday after rival Lewis Hamilton had dominated the race. While Mercedes are lodging an appeal over the stewards’ decision to bring in the safety car for the last lap after Nicholas Latifi crashed, it looks like it will be in vain and Formula One’s 34th champion Verstappen will keep his crown following a compelling season spread over nine months and 22 races. The drama in Abu Dhabi was only the latest in a long line of talking points over one of the most enthralling F1 seasons in history.

How was it won? Who exactly is our newest F1 champ? What does the future hold? Read on...

Max Verstappen
Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal/Gulf News

The key moments of Verstappen’s triumph

April 18: Emilia Romagna GP

Hamilton claimed the opening race in Bahrain and the signs were clear that the Briton was fully focused on taking his record eighth world title — but Verstappen had other ideas and seven years of constant progress in the F1 and Red Bull ranks meant he felt the time was right to mount a challenge to Hamilton’s years of dominance. The stage was set at Imola and Verstappen, starting third, made a superb start. On a wet track, Verstappen powered past teammate Sergio Perez and Hamilton to take the lead, with Hamilton being forced wide and damaging his front wing. Hamilton recovered from ninth to finish second but Verstappen was in cruise control at the front and we knew we had a title race on our hands.

July 18: British GP

Following the French Grand Prix, Verstappen had rapidly opened up an imposing 32-point lead over Hamilton and the talk of a changing of the guard grew stronger. However, as he has done so often, Hamilton roared back on home soil. Verstappen secured pole after winning F1’s latest addition — the qualifying sprint race, three were trialled during the season.

Hamilton was once again alongside his Dutch rival and, following the green light, the pair collided on the first lap and Verstappen crashed into the tyre barrier and out of the race. Hamilton was given a 10-second stop penalty but such was his pace he still won comfortably. Post-race recriminations set the stage for a season-long feud between Red Bull and Mercedes and plenty more incidents between the protagonists.

F1 winners 2021
Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal/Gulf News

A rapid rise to the top for Max

At 24, Max Verstappen is still one of the younger drivers on the F1 circuit. However, he is also vastly experienced as he has completed his seventh season in the sport. When he made his bow at the 2015 Australian Grand Prix, he became the youngest ever F1 driver at 17 years and 166 days — racing at up to 300kph before he even had a driver’s licence.

Born in Hasselt, Belgium, it was clear from an early age he was destined to follow in his father Jos’ footsteps into the world of motorsport. He took up karting at the age of four in Belgium and by 2007 he was the Dutch and Belgian Minimax champion. He also claimed the Belgian Cadet championship.

In 2009, Verstappen added to his haul with the Flemish Minimax championship and the Belgian KF5 championship — and bigger players in the world of racing were beginning to take notice.

In 2010, Verstappen seamlessly moved into international karting and narrowly missed out on the KF3 World Cup to future Red Bull teammate Alexander Albon before claiming the WSK Euro Series and WSK World Series

Max Verstappen win
Max Verstappen of Red Bull takes the chequered flag to win the Formula One Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit on December 12, 2021. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

By the time he was 15, Verstappen had pretty much won everything in karting and got his first taste of a Formula car in 2013, driving 160 laps in a Formula Renault car, and went on to test for several teams. In December 2013, Verstappen — still only 15 — stunned the driving world by outpacing Formula Renault regulars such as Steijn Schothorst and Matt Parry. He then repeated the feat in Valencia, outclassing seasoned pros like Tatiana Calderón and Eddie Cheever.

Next up, in 2014, was his competitive Formula debut in the Florida Winter Series, and he did not miss a step, rapidly racking up pole positions and victories against more experienced drivers, before claiming 10 victories and third place in his maiden Formula 3 season for Van Amersfoort Racing.

This is when Red Bull came knocking and quickly signed Verstappen up to their Junior Team, beating Mercedes to his signature — that could have been a fascinating journey had he made a different decision.

Max Verstappen
Max Verstappen of the Netherlands (centre) celebrates with members of his team after winning the Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi on December 12, 2021. Image Credit: AP

And so Verstappen’s F1 journey began, first of all lighting up the track for Red Bull’s sister team Torro Rosso, regularly finishing in the points and twice narrowly missing out on a podium spot.

Midway through the 2016 season, he was moved up to Red Bull to replace the underperforming Daniil Kvyat — and was the talk of F1 as he won his debut race with the team at the Spanish Grand Prix.

A sticky spell in 2017

If there is such a thing as a sticky spell in Verstappen’s career it would have to be 2017 — where technical issues and some rash driving decisions resulted in seven retirements. However, he finished the season strongly with wins in Malaysia and Mexico,

Each season has seen a steady progress, with more wins, podiums and points year on year — with the exception of the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season — and it will be fascinating to see which of the batch of our next-generation drivers can keep up with the flying Dutchman.

Verstappen has a no-holds-barred approach to racing and it sometimes gets him in trouble. However, that wheel-to-wheel style has paid dividends and now he has his hands on the coveted Drivers’ Championship trophy — with plenty more fireworks and glory to come.

Lewis Hamilton
Second-placed Mercedes’ British driver Lewis Hamilton reacts in the parc ferme of the Yas Marina Circuit after the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix on December 12, 2021. Image Credit: AFP

Question time: What now for Hamilton?

While all the talk is about Verstappen and his controversial win in Abu Dhabi, there is another issue that needs to be addressed — what next for the vanquished Lewis Hamilton?

It would be easy to consider this as the end of the road for the British seven-time world champion, who is now 36 and in the twilight of his racing career at the top. You could suggest that he will only get slower with the passage of time and a record eighth title may now never come.

F1 winners
Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal/Gulf News

Given his recent ponderings on his future at Mercedes and in the sport, it could be argued that an attractive option would be to call it quits while still at the pinnacle of the sport.

However, this is Lewis Hamilton. His fight this season shows he still has as much hunger for success as ever, and we have to bear in mind that, but for a Nicholas Latifi crash and a bizarre decision to bring in the safety car on the final lap in Abu Dhabi, we would be discussing the unprecedented success of the greatest driver of all time rather than Verstappen’s first crown.

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Hamilton still has unfinished business on the track as he chases that elusive eighth title and looks to add to his already massive 103 race victories and the exact same number of pole positions.

He may no longer be the world champion, but he has proven time and again this season that he still has his appetite. He also still has a contract with Mercedes until 2022 — with sources saying he is close to an extension. His flawless display at Yas Marina Circuit, and having the title ripped away from him in such dramatic and heart-wrenching fashion, will only add fuel to his fire for next season, with some scores to settle and points to prove.