Johannesburg - It would be fair to say that Hamilton v Verstappen broke the internet.
It was a rivalry for the ages by the end of 2021 but at the start of the year there was only scant evidence that it would become such an all-encompassing title fight.
During pre-season testing in Bahrain, Red Bull glided through the circuit – telemetry indicating that they had a staggering 0.5 second advantage over Mercedes.
Amazingly, yet not surprisingly, Toto Wolff and Co pulled it back from the brink of failure, engineering a W12 machine that only got better as the season progressed.
It resulted in Mercedes and Red Bull trading blows from the onset of the racing calendar; starting with the season-opening Bahrain GP, where Max Verstappen managed to overtake Lewis Hamilton in the final moments of the race, only for the 24-year-old to controversially be ordered to give the position back.
Verstappen would then go on to win the second race at Imola, before coming second to the Brit in subsequent races in Portugal and Spain. A poor performance for Mercedes in Monaco saw a stubborn wheelnut end Valtteri Bottas’ GP, while an underwhelming strategy terminated Hamilton’s efforts for victory. It resulted in Red Bull seizing the initiative to win a procedural race.
At the Azerbaijan GP in Baku, Vertsappen was comfortably leading the race when a rear-wheel blowout in the closing stages saw him smash into the barriers on the pit-straight, requiring the safety car to be deployed. The race was restarted with two laps to go, but it was then Hamilton’s turn to suffer as he missed the first corner due to forgetting to adjust his brake bias, overshooting the first corner and allowing Red Bull’s Sergio Perez to sneak to victory.
Despite the set-back, Verstappen would then go on to win the French GP, the Styrian GP and Austrian GP.
At Silverstone in July, the title rivals had their first major incident. With Verstappen enjoying a 33-point lead, the two drivers collided on the first lap at approximately 290km/h, the Dutchman spinning off the track, across gravel and into the safety wall.
Hamilton was adjudged to have been at fault as he had aggressively closed down the space at Copse corner, receiving a 10-second penalty as a result. He would still go on to win the race, snuffing out Verstappen’s lead in the championship to only eight points.
The Hungarian GP – won by Esteban Ocon – the farcical Belgium GP and the
Dutch GP – both won by Verstappen – would follow. It would be at the Italian GP, however, that the boiling point would be reached.
At this point, Verstappen had a narrow three-point lead but a poor pitstop by both the Red Bull and Mercedes saw the two drivers wheel-to-wheel on lap 26. A desperate Verstappen, in an effort to overtake the seven-time world champion, collided with his rival at the first corner, mounting the Mercedes as he did so and forcing both drivers out of the race, eventually won by Daniel Ricciardo.
Hamilton enjoyed the rub of the green in the following GP in Russia, when a late race downpour tragically put a halt to Lando Norris claiming his first victory but Verstappen also enjoyed some luck to finish a credible and damage-limiting second.
A power-unit change in Turkey accounted for Hamilton starting down road on the grid, ultimately finishing fifth, but thanks to teammate Bottas, who won the race, limiting the impact on the title chase.
It was largely expected that at the US GP Mercedes would hold all the cards. Surprising all and sundry, Verstappen stormed to an unlikely victory, extending his lead to 12 points, and a week later would take full advantage of the altitude to win the Mexican GP too.
But there would be another twist in the tale at the Sao Paulo GP. Hamilton flipped the script as Verstappen had done in Austin by putting in arguably the drive of the season. Starting from 10th on the grid, Hamilton fought his way through the field with power and precision to overtake Verstappen on lap 59 to claim a magnificent victory.
Hamilton would then go on to muscle his way to victory at Qatar and Saudi
Arabia, heading into the season-ending Abu Dhabi GP level on points with Verstappen.
The advantage was now fully with Hamilton and Mercedes as they took pole at the Yas Marina Circuit and then streaked away during the opening laps of the race.
But then Nicholas Latifi in his Williams crashed out in the 53rd lap; race control calling on the safety car to be deployed; Verstappen pitted, while Hamilton did not; race director Michael Masi took the controversial decision to allow a handful of unlapped cars to overtake said safety car; Verstappen sitting on the wheel of Hamilton at the restart; then overtaking his rival on the last lap, with a furious fight-back from the Brit ensuing; before Verstappen streaked over the line to triumph – his 10th victory of the season, and his first world drivers’ championship.