INSIGHT: The greatest F1 showdown?
VERSTAPPEN VERSUS HAMILTON offers the potential of the greatest Formula One title showdown in four decades. But how does it stand up against some of the all-time great F1 title battles? JORDAN ZOCH delves into the history books.
Not since the final race of that season at Watkins Glen, have we had two drivers equal on points leading the Formula 1 world championship going into the last race.
That day both Clay Reggatzoni and Emerson Fittipaldi lined up on the grid sitting equal on 52 points apiece each hoping to write their name into the history books.
In the end it was Fittipaldi (finishing fourth) who was crowned champion after a disappointing 11th place finish for Reggatzoni.
This year’s finale provides only the second time in Formula 1 history where this has occurred.
As the Formula 1 World Championship travels to Abu Dhabi this weekend for the final race of the season we are blessed with a title fight that is still up in the air.
Both Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton enter the weekend running atop the championship leader board both equal on 369.5 points.
A win for either driver would create history, Hamilton gunning for an unprecedented eighth title, surpassing the record he currently shares with legend Michael Schumacher, or a maiden title for generational talent Max Verstappen, finally rewarding all his hard work and dedication to the team.
In anticipation for what is billed to be a grandstand finish to the 2021 season this also offers a chance to reflect on previous title deciders that have entered the final race of the season.
Famous names synonymous with the sport have had their title dreams dashed by bad luck and costly decisions ultimately handing the title to their bitter rivals.
Casting our eyes back to Brazil, 2008.
You hear the phrase and immediately recall the moment.
“Is that Glock!? Is that Glock going slowly?”
Snatching the title from literally the hands of Felipe Massa, Lewis Hamilton’s final corner overtake on the final lap of the race and season gave him a fifth-place finish enough to clinch the title by an agonising one-point margin.
The scenes of jubilation to despair inside the Ferrari garages as Hamilton crossed the line and took his maiden title reverberate around the paddock to this day.
While he retired with seven titles to his name Michael Schumacher could have had few less had he not been on the side of luck.
In both 1994 and 2003, Schumacher entered the final race of the season with slender leads (1 point in 1994 and 9 points in 2003).
His maiden title in 1994 has perhaps become shrouded in infamy, after entering the race one point ahead of Williams driver Damon Hill.
At the halfway point of the race Schumacher and Hill were running first and second respectively, after running wide, Hill sensed at opportunity to dive down the inside to overtake, at which point Schumacher turned in making contact, effectively ending the race for the pair on the spot.
Schumacher blamed the coming together as a “racing incident” but that claim is still heavily disputed to this day.
His 2003 championship victory came after edging out ultra-consistent McLaren driver Kimi Räikkönen by a scant two points.
Banking on Schumacher finishing out of the points and needing to win the race to seal the championship, Räikkönen was only able to secure second place, Schumacher finishing in eighth securing an all-important point for his efforts.
While not a final race of the season duel, the coming together of Senna and Prost at Suzuka in 1990 ranks highly amongst career and championship defining moments.
Leading the championship, Senna only needing a DNF from Prost to secure the title did what many believed at the time to be a deliberate act.
Diving down the inside at the first corner after the start, Senna took both himself and Prost out of the race, with the result crowning Senna champion.
Hounded by questions after the race pertaining to his integrity and morals, Senna offered up a simple and memorable explanation for his actions.
“If you no longer go for a gap that exists you are no longer a racing driver.”
After his landslide victory in 2020, many believed that 2021 would follow the same script, another driver’s title for Hamilton, and constructors crown for Mercedes.
However tweaked technical rules, brought in for the 2021 season in response to the pandemic have drastically reduced the gap and advantage Mercedes have held over their title rivals in the proceeding seasons.
Not since 2016, where Nico Rosberg edged Hamilton out for the title, have we seen such a close and enthralling battle at the front of the field like the one that we have been blessed with this season.
Come Sunday another champion will be crowned in what is shaping up to be one of the tightly contested duels in the history of the sport.
But how have we got to this position?
The sight of Mercedes dominance has become all too familiar since their rise in 2014. Red Bull has provided an air of freshness for the competition this year, challenging Mercedes for both poll positions and race wins.
Ask any fan or pundit for their thoughts and they would tell you this season has been one of the most exciting in recent memory. The 2021 season has ebbed and flowed over each race weekend, tight battles and controversy following the leading protagonists.
The records of both leading men are almost identical, coming into the last round Max has his nose Infront on nine wins to Lewis’ eight.
Somewhat surprisingly, Max also leads the pole position numbers with eight to five respectively, a testament to the gains made by both Honda and Red Bull in being able to take the fight to the usually formidable setups Mercedes are known for bringing to a qualifying session.
Like seasons preceding this has not been without controversy: almost inevitably the pair have come together on multiple occasions throughout the season.
Crashes at Silverstone and Monza ignited a war of words between both the teams and drivers, pushing blame away from themselves.
The sight of Hamilton celebrating victory at Silverstone as Verstappen sat in the medical centre following their opening lap collision only souring relations further.
But while Red Bull and Verstappen alike may feel hard done by and on the wrong side of luck, Mercedes and Hamilton have not always had the rub of the green either.
A comprehensive beating at Monaco giving Hamilton a wakeup call for the season ahead, and his disqualification from Brazil qualifying for a technical infringement on his rear wing resulted in a masterful drive to clinch victory and reduce the championship margin.
The drama between the pair seemingly came to a head at the penultimate round of the championship last weekend in Saudi Arabia.
Tension and pressure saw Verstappen hit the wall while on what many saw was a potential pole position clinching lap, having only to settle for a second-placed start behind Hamilton.
The drama didn’t stop there as a race marred by incidents red flags and restarts saw Verstappen driving on what Hamilton later described to be ‘over the limit’ in a bid to get ahead.
After running wide and passing Hamilton off track, Verstappen was instructed to hand back the position by his team and the FIA.
Enter tactics and gamesmanship.
Verstappen slowed, moving to the right to seemingly allow Hamilton to pass by retaking the position.
You would scarcely believe what happened next if you didn’t see it for yourself.
Further slowing from Verstappen resulted in Hamilton running up the rear of the Red Bull as it then scampered away into the open track.
Shock and confusion reigned supreme, with damage impacting Hamilton’s front wing he forged along amidst the failing tyre performance of Verstappen.
Eventually getting by Verstappen, and taking the win, Hamilton levelled the championship ahead of this weekend’s decider in Abu Dhabi.
Somewhat overshadowing the amazing season thus far, much talk has been of the tactics of both drivers in the last race, in particular the coming together and allegations of ‘break testing’ plaguing Verstappen.
Looking forward to the race and trying to predict a winner of the race and championship is anyone’s guess.
Typically a Mercedes dominant track, the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi has undergone reprofiling changes in a bid to generate closer and more exciting racing, something the circuit has lacked since coming onto the calendar.
The 2021 season deserves an exciting finish, crowning a well-deserved winner at the end of the 55 laps around the circuit.
In the unfortunate and hopefully unlikely event of a double DNF, the championship crown would be handed to Verstappen on countback, due to his superior tally of race wins.
Come the early hours of Monday morning Australia time the 2021 Formula 1 World Champion will be crowned.
The race hopefully not tainted by a Schumacher/Hill or Senna/Prost like coming together deciding the result.
With 2022 seeing the biggest changes in Formula 1 since the implementation of the current generation of cars in 2014, with the complete overhaul of the chassis and aerodynamic package in a bid to create closer racing and mix up the status quo.
This race and season could prove to be a final opportunity for both drivers to clinch a championship before wholesale changes come into effect.
The 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix can be streamed on Foxtel and Kayo starting at Midnight (AEDT) on Sunday the 12th of December.