I’ve been watching Formula One for nearly three decades, and for most of that time, it’s been boring as hell. Not always, but definitely most of the time. Despite all the drama and the emotional rollercoaster the 2021 season brought along, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen kept things intense. Things were so incredibly not boring that I’m still somewhat in shock.
There are literally dozens of moments that defined this F1 season—but that’d be too many to talk about. So, I’ve chosen six highlights that I consider the most noteworthy—controversial finale aside.
Rookie vs. Rookie
Yuki Tsunoda was one of three rookies in 2021, and arguably, he had the hardest job. Unlike Haas F1 drivers Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin—who could compete against each other at the back of the pack—Tsunoda had to stack up against midfield star and race-winner Pierre Gasly. It was a tough year for the Honda junior team and Tsunoda certainly struggled, but he came out of the blocks looking brilliant, including an incredible battle with not-really-a-rookie, two-time world champion Fernando Alonso.
Tsunoda struggled during most of the season, taking a confidence- and gearbox-destroying hit at the second race that he struggled to come back from. His form gradually improved at the tail end of the year and ended up finishing a career-best fourth place in Abu Dhabi.
Old Mercedes Driver, Meet New Mercedes Driver
There were two on-track fights between the class of 2019 and the Mercedes factory drivers at the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix. One, between George Russell and Valtteri Bottas, ended with both cars in the gravel trap and drivers furious with each other. And then there was Hamilton and McLaren’s Lando Norris.
Russell and Bottas’ crashed cars in the Imola gravel trap
Hamilton and Norris spent the final three laps of the Imola race scrapping with each other as the McLaren tried to hold on to second and the Mercedes very much tried to take it away. In the end, Norris’ tires weren’t in a state to resist but to see a McLaren actually fighting for on-track position with a Mercedes, not getting blue-flagged, was a sign of things to come.
Hamilton and Norris would go on to fight at multiple grand prix, Hamilton repeatedly complimenting Norris for his clean and error-free defense. The last time they’d tangle, unfortunately for Norris, was the Russian Grand Prix when Mother Nature treated Norris to a rather cruel reality—costing the Brit his first F1 victory, but helping Hamilton keep his title hopes alive.
Hamilton’s first podium with his old team since leaving
A Wholesome Monaco Podium
This ultimately came down to Valtteri Bottas’ stuck wheel nut. Although not quite the youngest podium in F1 history (Carlos Sainz isn’t Junior enough for it to have counted), Verstappen, Carlos Sainz, and Norris stood there as a trio of former teammates and friends earning their stuff in F1. Also, this marked the time when Verstappen took the lead of a title for the first time.
The Hungarian Grand Prix is often a banger. This year, though, it really threw out all the stops. It started with a multiple-car collision, and somewhere about forty minutes in, things took a tragicomic turn.
Hamilton, the only car not to pit to switch to slick tires, duly waited for the lights out on a one-car grid, and away he went. Everyone else merged out behind him from the pit lane, before Hamilton then had to pit for his own slicks and the real action started. First, we got Hamilton versus Schumacher and then Alonso versus Hamilton, the 2005 and 2006 champion defending to secure teammate Esteban Ocon his (and Alpine’s) first win.
Somewhere in the middle of all that, Williams ended up in double-points-paying positions, having not scored a single point for more than two calendar years. George Russell emotionally cried to the media afterward but it was probably his mid-race radio message—”If you need to compromise my race to help Nicky [Latifi] then do it, I will box early to avoid the undercut for anyone else”—that showed how much it meant.
For a guy whose future at Mercedes was all but confirmed, Russell didn’t have to care that much about dragging his backmarker team into the points again. But as a lifelong Williams fan, it showed just how much every team member has to pull through to make it work.
The less said about Sebastian Vettel getting disqualified, sadly, the better.
A Mexican F1 Driver Leads in Mexico for the First Time
The Mexican Grand Prix was very exciting for several reasons: firstly, Red Bull looked so scarily dominant it seemed the title had swung one way. Also, it was Sergio Perez’s first home race in a top team.
The Red Bull driver had already survived the second seat’s curse but also went on to become the first Mexican driver to lead the Mexican Grand Prix, in what would be one of several crucial times he held the lead from Hamilton during the pit stop window. Perez finished third but there’s no question that, to a home crowd in Mexico City, he might as well have won the title.
Leclerc and Sainz Make Ferrari Likeable, Successful Again
“What’s going on with Ferrari?” is a sort of permanent philosophical fixture to the F1 landscape. When it’s winning you have to ask it, when it’s losing you have to ask it more often, and at the start of the 2021 season it was looming large over the red garage. After all, even their former driver hated them so much he didn’t want to see the logo.
In 2020, Ferrari was terrible. In 2021 Ferrari was occasionally terrible but in fun and exciting ways, like crashing your way to take pole in Monaco and chaotically backsliding through the French Grand Prix for no reason. Truly, you did not know what it was going to do next, and at points, it seemed like it didn’t, either.
The fight between Red Bull and Mercedes meant Ferrari could get on with whatever it was doing. We don’t need to know the inner workings, but it worked. What had looked like erratic performance at the start of 2021 turned into a consistent drubbing at McLaren’s cost, its early-season advantage seemingly nixed after the Monza win.
In 2020, Ferrari scored a miserable 131 points and came a disastrous sixth. In 2021 it scored 323.5, beating McLaren for third by nearly 50 points. That’s a hell of a turnaround—and it was Sainz, the best-adapted of all the drivers to swap teams for this season, who brought home the biggest chunk of that, beating Leclerc and former teammate Norris to fifth with an Abu Dhabi podium.
It’s good for F1 when Ferrari is competitive; it’s the most historic team and an enormous marketing asset. And after 22 long, hard-fought races this year, we could all do with a bit of scarlet levity heading into the next one. Prance on, ponies.
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