The 2021 Formula 1 will always be remembered for being what a bit of an antithesis to what a quintessential season in the top flight of the sport looks like.
While most seasons are fast and furious and often marked by unpredictability, the 2021 championship fight was more; it was punctuated by the drama that continued into the very final race of the season, i.e., the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. A race that brought agony to Mercedes and ecstasy to Red Bull.
It would turn out to be a season so utterly dominated by the two men more or less always out in the front that of the 22 races held last year, 18 were won collectively by Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton.
More interestingly, so dominant were the two drivers- Hamilton and Verstappen- that both hit a hat-trick of race wins at different intervals of the F1 2021 world championship.
The manner in which the two led the proceedings until the end was just the way the proceedings began right at the start.
An ample evidence of this were the first five races, where simply put, no other driver was able to contain the Hamilton and Verstappen show. That’s when there was quite a hefty talent pool on the grid, think Ricciardo, Bottas, Alonso, Vettel, Leclerc and Sainz.
Right from the season-opening Bahrain GP to the completion of the Monaco Grand Prix, the race win either belonged to Verstappen or Hamilton.
But interestingly, all of that would change, if only for a bit, as the F1 circus arrived at Azerbaijan Grand Prix, which was round six of the season last year.
Point to note- the Azerbaijan Grand Prix was held on June 6, 2021, which is precisely a year back in the day. And maybe that’s why it’s pertinent to recall what transpired 365 days in the back during the heat of the battle between the celebrated British racing icon and the famous flying Dutchman.
First things first; Verstappen entered Baku, the home of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix with his nose out in the front, if only just.
The Red Bull driver entered the famous and often action-packed street course with no more than 4 points as lead over his archrival, Lewis Hamilton. Prior to the start of the race, Verstappen had 105 points in comparison to Hamilton’s 101.
So it was expected that the race would turn out another belter of a contest with maybe Hamilton going for an all-out attack over his championship rival.
And it all seemed to be heading in that perfect direction with the only deterrent to Hamilton and Verstappen’s chances being Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, who claimed pole and thus denied any of the two great drivers the perfect front row start.
Not that this would be a great game changer as given the flying speed of Mercedes’ main title contender Hamilton, who began from second on the grid, Leclerc found his Ferrari’s pace cut short somewhat.
Leclerc was only able to maintain the race lead for nearly 3 laps as at the end of the third lap, with 48 more to play, Hamilton was out in the front.
The only other overtakes that happened prior to the change in the track position were at the midfield. Perez, eventually the race winner, had moved upto fourth from sixth having passed Sainz and Gasly.
Alonso, meanwhile, had jumped to seventh having begun from eighth and Vettel had moved up to ninth, having begun from eleventh.
On lap 6, Verstappen, who’d been hanging out behind Leclerc, then second, blitzed past the wailing Ferrari that wasn’t able to put up much of a fight.
After lap 11, Hamilton pitted, the first of the top three, but his pit exit was delayed by two seconds thanks to Gasly driving the pit lane behind him.
One lap later, Max pitted, which meant that the race lead went to Perez.
Soon, both Red Bulls jumped Hamilton, the Briton now on fourth.
And since Vettel hadn’t stopped all this time, he’d gather the race lead.
For the next fifteen laps, until the completion of lap 26, Hamilton kept trying to pass Perez for second but failed. Then four laps later, on lap 30, Stroll, who hadn’t pitted until such time, suffered a left-rear tyre failure on the main straight while exiting turn 20; he’d crash onto the left-hand barriers.
Some drama you’d have thought and how could that not be since this was Baku!
Nonetheless, the event prompted the deployment of the safety car, which would end towards the completion of lap 36.
As only 15 were left to play, things were about to get even tight and perhaps even more dramatic than they’d been.
For starters, Vettel executed a beautiful pass on Leclerc to clinch fifth. He was getting closer to the top three.
Meanwhile, Verstappen, Perez and Hamilton, the top three at that point in time, did look set for a strong race finish, just that the two of that trinity wouldn’t go onto finish the race.
Vettel, seconds later, passed Gasly, moving beautifully on the inside of the Alpha Tauri on the straights; the German getting punchier and unstoppable with each passing lap. He was now on fourth.
The top five were all on hard tires.
But it wasn’t before lap 46 that the race famous for producing scary crashes and upheaval no race pundit can ever fully tell produced the most shocking sight.
Verstappen, out in the lead and looking comfortable to clinch the win, suffered a tire failure on the main straights that none saw coming. The race leader was out with a sudden DNF and this meant a change in the pecking order.
The crash at 200 miles an hour was a scary sight.
Perez, who’d been doing a solid job all this while, benefitted from Max’s crash and was now dominating the proceedings. Hamilton, meanwhile, moved up into second and Vettel reached third.
But the Dutchman’s crash also meant red flagging of the race. But upon the restart, Hamilton, who’d have liked to pounce on the Red flag perhaps endured the biggest shock of his season yet.
With overheating brakes, the seven time world champion managed to go straight instead of taking a sharp left-turn which meant he’d fall down in the order only to put Gasly up into third.
Vettel, meanwhile, had managed to get second with Perez out in the lead. This would be the final order of a race that started so perfectly well for both Verstappen and Hamilton who’d dominated the show only to end way behind in the order rather unpredictably.
But this is Formula 1 and cliched as it may sound; you just have to be ready to embrace the uneventful.
A first podium for Vettel in an Aston Martin, a great result for the Alpha male Gasly and a great race win for the often underrated Perez, also the winner of the most recent F1 Grand Prix at Monaco.
One can only guess what may happen this weekend but maybe it won’t yield much success for you never know what Baku may produce- right?