Yes, Max Verstappen won his first career Formula 1 world driver's championship on a last-lap pass made possible only because the FIA and F1 race director Michael Masi made a series of strange and catastrophic choices ahead of and during the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. This is the immediate point on which the championship swung, but it misses the point of what Max did in the 2021 season entirely.
This is the eighteenth installment of our driver-by-driver preview of the 2022 Formula 1 season. This weekend, we will be covering Red Bull. You can find the rest of our previews here.
None of the controversy is anywhere near either Red Bull or Verstappen's part. Although their opportunity was created entirely by poorly-written rules executed inconsistently, the team simply made the right choice when a choice was presented and Verstappen simply did what he had to do on the restart. It should not take away from the best-driven season of his career, nor should it take away from the strength of every other one of his wins, many of which came after head-to-head battles with Lewis Hamilton himself.
Max Verstappen is a deserving champion whose title came about because he drove exceptionally for an entire season. What happened at Abu Dhabi was the fault of Formula 1 itself, not the champion it crowned, and the asterisk on that final race does not leave an asterisk on Verstappen's season. He showed real and consistent world-beating form from the beginning to end of 2021, form he will be expected to bring into 2022 as he begins the fight for his second title.
HOW HE GOT HERE
Verstappen's rise through the open wheel ranks is so uncharacteristically fast that it forced a rule change. He jumped from karts to cars in the 2014 offseason, then won ten races en route to third in the 2014 Formula 3 championship. It was all Red Bull needed to see before promoting him directly to F1 for 2015, a decision that inspired the FIA to introduce a more robust and thorough licensing system soon afterward.
At the time, the decision seemed like a surefire way to waste a prospect's incredible potential. When Red Bull pulled a similar stunt with Jaime Alguersuari, the driver Verstappen replaced as the youngest F1 starter ever, it ended with Alugersuari out of F1 within three years and retired from racing to concentrate on his career as a DJ by 25. Verstappen skipped even further, going straight to the Scuderia Toro Rosso junior team at just 17 without a season in any international series following F1 or junior championship of any level to his name.
Verstappen overcame those concerns quickly. He scored points regularly in a 2015 season highlighted by two finishes of fourth, then got the call to move straight up to Red Bull's senior team four races into the 2016 season. That weekend, he became the youngest driver to ever win an F1 race. Four more podiums rounded out a finish of fifth in the series championship.
Verstappen improved gradually for the next few years, never winning more than three races between 2017 and 2020, but he kept improving and continued to win multiple races every year. With Sebastian Vettel falling out of favor at Ferrari, it was enough to make him the clear greatest threat to Lewis Hamilton for the championship in the 2021 season.
HOW 2021 WENT
And that was when he made the leap. With Red Bull greatly improved and ready to help their young driver fight for a title for the first time in his career, Verstappen put together a truly astonishing season: Ten wins, eight second-place finishes, and no result worse than second in any race that Red Bull ran without a major problem. One of those, a runner-up finish in Sochi, actually came after a major grid penalty; Verstappen capitalized on late rain and simply drove up to second anyway.
But Mercedes seemed to gain back the upper hand in the final eight races of the season, with Verstappen's title rival Lewis Hamilton winning five of the seven before the season finale at Abu Dhabi. Some of the best drives of either champion's career led them to be tied ahead of the final race. Verstappen's aggressive attempt to pass Hamilton early did not pay off, but the two continued without contact and left Red Bull scrambling through every alternate strategy they could imagine for the bulk of the race. It left them close enough to Hamilton and far enough away from third to dive in for tires without losing a spot on the final safety car. When race control made the puzzling decision to waive the traditional reorganization of cars used in every prior race of the season and avoid the red flag used in a late stoppage at Sochi, Verstappen was left with an easy pass on the one-lap restart.
He was officially crowned a few hours later, when the first round of Mercedes protests failed. The team decided to decline their rights to appeal those decisions over the next few days, leaving Verstappen as an uncontested champion.
GOALS FOR 2022
Verstappen's 2021 season was not perfect, although it was particularly close to it until the final three races. In Brazil and Saudi Arabia, his once-famous flair for taking aggressive risks on track resurfaced in car-to-car battles for the lead with Hamilton. The moves in Saudi Arabia were particularly egregious, ultimately leading to a post-race penalty that confirmed Verstappen's fault in the situation but did not change his championship outlook. When you have a season as strong as Verstappen had, the only real improvement available is perfection.
That means cleaner races, like his perfect run at the Circuit of the Americas where he beat out Hamilton on pit strategy early and held him off on track for the entire final stint without a single reckless block or brake check. In a season expected to be much more competitive deeper in the field in cars expected to race much more competitively on track, he may find himself in more and more car-to-car on-track battles for the win. If he can win at this level with the sort of cleaner moves he used in the first 3/4ths of his season, it will be a step from greatness to perfection. If he continues to drive like he did in the final quarter of the season, he will be far from the first F1 champion with a reputation for questionable driving with a title on the line.
A SUCCESSFUL SEASON LOOKS LIKE...
The problem with coming off a ten-win season is that anything but another championship will be a disappointment. Verstappen had announced his arrival at the top level of F1 drivers by the first five races of the 2021 season, but he needs to keep winning to keep that designation.
Even factoring in Red Bull and Mercedes being joined by at least one more team as title contenders, a season with less than six wins would be a disappointment for Verstappen. Add in as many poles and a legitimate shot at a title heading into the final race of the season and you have a season that is comparable to what he did with just one close competitor this season.