Lewis Hamilton will become either the first Formula 1 driver to win eight Formula 1 World Championships or be dethroned by young nemesis Max Verstappen at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
On Sunday, under the Yas Marina floodlights, fireworks are expected between the duo if last Sunday’s highly contentious Saudi Arabian Grand Prix is anything to go by.
Either a record will be set, one surely destined to be longer lasting than Ferrari great Michael Schumacher’s seven between 1994-2004, or Hamilton’s long reign will end in a generational shift.
For the first time since 1974, and only the second since the World Championship started in 1950 although scoring systems have changed, two title contenders go into the final round absolutely level on points.
It is the proverbial Clash of Titans in F1’s contest of the century, whatever the outcome, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix showdown promises to be television-ratings gold.
Verstappen has won nine races to Hamilton’s eight – a key advantage that means the Briton must score while the Red Bull driver could even become champion during the race if his rival retires.
Otherwise, whoever finishes ahead of the other – unless Hamilton is ninth and Verstappen 10th with fastest lap – takes the title.
That has also raised fears that the outcome could be decided by a collision between the two, as has happened notoriously in the past in final showdowns where so much is at stake and one driver has everything to gain by taking out the other.
For all Verstappen’s aggressive driving, his take-no-prisoners style, bad-tempered exchanges and high emotions, Red Bull and their Dutch youngster have been clear they want to win the title fair and square.
“He’s a hard racer but a fair racer, and I expect no different this weekend,” team boss Christian Horner told the Times newspaper. “Nobody wants to win this championship in a gravel trap or in a stewards’ inquiry.
“They’ve been hard races. They’ve gone wheel to wheel. But I think, for all the fans, you want to see a fair and clean fight in this last round and may the best team and best driver win.”
The era of Mercedes domination
Although the wheel-to-wheel duel between the 36-year-old Hamilton and his 24-year-old challenger has an epochal tone to it, the Briton’s Mercedes team can continue their era of domination with an eighth successive constructors’ crown.
They are 28 points ahead and Horner has admitted it will take a miracle to stop them.
“It’s all or nothing for the season finale and that’s amazing for the sport, amazing for the fans and amazing for all of us, too,” commented Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff.
Verstappen won the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last year, leading every lap from pole position, but the circuit has been shortened and modified since then in the hope of creating more overtaking opportunities.
Hamilton had also already won his seventh title and was recovering from contracting COVID-19 that forced him to miss the previous race in Bahrain.
This time the reigning champion should have the benefit of a newer engine than Verstappen and is also riding high after three race wins in a row.
The race will be a farewell for Red Bull’s engine partner Honda, although they will continue to assemble the power units next year before the energy drink company takes over the intellectual property.
Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas will be racing for Mercedes for the last time before moving to Alfa Romeo, with George Russell replacing the Finn and saying goodbye to Williams.
The lower placings will also be settled, with Ferrari set to secure third.
Facts & Statistics for the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
- Yas Marina Circuit
- Lap distance: 5.281km.
- Total distance: 306.183km (58 laps)
- 2020 pole position: Max Verstappen (Netherlands) Red Bull – one minute 35.246 seconds.
- 2020 winner: Verstappen
- Race lap record: Circuit has been modified since 2020.
- Start time: 1300 GMT (1700 local)
Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
- The circuit runs anti-clockwise. Mercedes have won six of the last seven editions.
- Five current drivers have won at Yas Marina: Sebastian Vettel (2009, 2010 and 2013), Lewis Hamilton (2011, 2014, 2016, 2018, 2019), Kimi Raikkonen (2012), Valtteri Bottas (2017), Verstappen (2020).
- Hamilton has been on pole five times there.
- Only once has the winner not started on the front row: Raikkonen from fourth in 2012 with Lotus.
- Hamilton has a record 103 career victories, of which 82 have been with Mercedes, from 287 starts. He has been on the podium 181 times.
- Red Bull’s championship leader Max Verstappen has won nine times this year to Hamilton’s eight. Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, Alpine’s Esteban Ocon, McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo and Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas have each won once.
- Ferrari have won 238 races since 1950, McLaren 183, Mercedes 124, Williams 114 and Red Bull 74.
- Hamilton has a record 103 career poles and has won 61 times from pole. Teammate Bottas has had four poles in 2021.
- Verstappen has been on pole nine times in 2021, while Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was fastest in Azerbaijan and Monaco qualifying. McLaren’s Lando Norris was on pole in Russia.
2021 Formula 1 World Championship
- Verstappen and Hamilton are level on 369.5 points after 21 races, with Verstappen ahead on wins. It is only the second time drivers have been tied at the top before the final race. The other was in 1974.
- That means if Hamilton retires or fails to score, Verstappen is champion.
- Otherwise, the champion is whoever finishes ahead of the other — unless Hamilton is ninth and Verstappen 10th but with fastest lap.
- Mercedes lead Red Bull by 28 points in the F1 constructors’ standings and need 17 points to be assured of the title. Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said last weekend it would take a miracle to beat them.
- Mercedes would be the first team to win eight successive constructors’ championships. Ferrari won six in a row from 1999-2004. McLaren won four consecutively from 1988-91 and Red Bull four from 2010-13.
- Hamilton is already the most successful Formula 1 driver of all time but can become the first to win eight world championships.
- Verstappen, 24, would be the first Dutch driver to take the title.
- The Red Bull driver would also be the fourth-youngest champion of all time – behind Vettel (23 and 134 days in 2010), Hamilton (23 and 301 days in 2008) and Fernando Alonso (24 and 59 days in 2005).
- Verstappen has 17 podiums this season and one more would be a record for a driver in a single championship.
Farewells at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
- Sunday is a last Grand Prix for Ferrari’s 2007 world champion Raikkonen, now with Alfa Romeo.
- It is also the last for Bottas at Mercedes before replacing Raikkonen, for George Russell at Williams.
- Bottas replaces departing Antonio Giovinazzi at Alfa Romeo.
- Honda, Red Bull’s partners, are departing as an engine supplier.
- It will also be the last race with the 13-inch tyres, with the sport switching to low-profile 18-inch ones for 2022 as part of new technical regulations. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin)