Bear with me, as I must confess I am Dutch and yes, a big fan of Max Verstappen. And yes, that does mean I was screaming my lungs out at my TV last Sunday in disbelief of what just happened, and Max winning his first-ever title in Formula 1. But next to being a fan of Max Verstappen, I am a fan of the sport of Formula 1. I have been following F1 racing for about 25 years now, but I have never seen a season like this. Sure, Formula 1 has had controversy to the point it shook the sport to its core every now and then, but this year it has been ridiculous. Part of that is the fact we’re witnessing arguably the two greatest driver’s of the current F1 grid battle it out race after race, lap after lap. And part of it is all the drama that has been going on off-track. So in this episode of the Petrolhead Corner, I try to make sense of it all and see if I can determine if this season is good, or bad for the sport in the long run.
Setting the stage
It makes sense to sketch the scenery leading up to the opening race in Bahrain before we dive into all the unexpected twists and turns we’ve seen this year. Since the introduction of hybrid technology in Formula 1, back in 2014, Mercedes Formula 1 has been the team to beat. For seven years we’ve seen them cruise to double championship after double championship pretty much unchallenged. And as history has shown us, all reigns in F1, whether it be a driver’s or a constructor’s reign, will come to an end eventually.
2014 is coincidently also the year a very young Max Verstappen made his debut in Formula 1, albeit in a practice session during the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka instead of a race. Max had been making headlines for a number of years already, after pretty much dominating every single class he participated in. His record is stupidly impressive, participating and winning races and tiles all over the place, sometimes even multiple titles in a year. There have been races where he laps the entire field, and seasons where he wins every single race in a championship. In short, a rising force to be reckoned with and a sure-fire future champion.
During the hybrid era in Formula 1, and leading Mercedes’ dominance, Britton Lewis Hamilton has rewritten the record books. Seven world titles, over 100 race wins, over 100 pole positions and a whole bunch of other records make him one of the greatest ever. There simply is no denying that. One record has always stood out to me, perhaps more than all the other (except for the 7 titles probably). Lewis Hamilton is the ONLY driver to have won a race in every single season of competing in F1.
His switch from McLaren to Mercedes caused a storm in 2013, as no one expected him to leave the team that brought him to F1 and a title in just his second season. Nevertheless, Lewis apparently saw the potential and since he has clinched the world driver’s title 6 more times, equaling Michael Schumacher He is, without a doubt, one of the greatest ever, looking to break the ultimate F1 record.
Formula 1 is actually two championships in one, as most of you will probably know. On one hand, you have the Driver’s Championship, focusing on the results of each individual competitor during each and every race of the season. On the other, the Constructor’s Championship revolves around the best overall performance amongst the teams, 10 in total. It is a title race where all points of each of the two drivers are totalled to determine the best team of the year. And while we tend to focus on the driver coming out on top, the constructor’s championship is actually more important to the teams for one very simple reason; money!
Formula 1 is perhaps the most cash-intense sport on the planet, with a season costing hundreds of millions of euros for the top teams. This is the first season however where we have a budget cap, topping out at a still substantial USD 145 million. This limitation of what a team can spend is intended to level the playing field a bit between the big-budget teams of Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari, and bring the smaller teams into contention a bit more. If we’re looking at the way the 2021 season has played out, I fail to see if it made any significant impact. Sure, the midfield pack are much closer than in previous seasons, but Red Bull and Mercedes were in a league of their own. In 23 races, only 2 were NOT won by either of the two, with Alpine winning in Hungary and McLaren winning in Italy.
The biggest source of revenue for Formula 1 is the sales of broadcasting rights. A TV network looking to show a single or all races of a season has to bring some serious cash to the table. For my home country of the Netherlands, the TV rights have just switched from Ziggo TV to NENT, a Norwegian streaming company, for more than USD 30 million for a single season (NENT has signed a 3-year deal with F1). And we just cover about 17 million people. Imagine what it will cost a network to cover countries like Germany, the UK or France, with a far greater potential audience.
The final standings in the constructor’s championship determine the size of each cut of the pie, with the champions obviously taking the biggest slice. Just how much that is in terms of actual money is a bit of a mystery, and sources indicate different things when trying to find an answer. What does become clear is that the prize money is about half of F1’s total earnings, which is close to USD 2 billion in 2021. The winning constructor is said to receive 14% of the prize money (So, Mercedes), with the team coming in second (Red Bull) receiving 12,9%. The ladder works its way down to Haas, who came in last and earns 6%. Next to that, there’s a bonus system in play where historically successful teams get allocated additional prize money.
Doing the quick math indicates that the stated 14% of half the sports total revenue comes down to about USD 140 million. That leaves out bonuses, sponsorship, merchandise sales and other revenue streams for each team. If what I found out about Formula 1’s prize money system is at all a bit accurate, it’s not a bad business case, right? So yes, the stakes are very, very high!
incidents left, right and centre
During the entire season of 2021 we’ve seen drama on and off-track, with experts, fans and newborn enthusiasts regularly left speechless as to what all happened. On the upside of things, we’ve seen the best racing in Formula 1 for a very, very long time. Sure it was borderline dangerous every now and then but these guys are laying it all on the line every single race weekend. And they accept that with all the risks that come with it. If you’re not up for that, you should find a different sport to compete in. Maybe checkers or something.
The intense battles on track grabbed headlines the world over and I am sure this will have a positive effect in the long run. In the Netherlands alone I have heard people talk about F1 who before never seemed to take any form of interest in it. We’ve seen driver’s, not only Max and Lewis, rise to new heights and achieve the unthinkable. Surprise wins by McLaren in Italy, or Alpine in Hungary are the stuff that makes this season that extra bit special. And let’s not forget the battle in the dunes of Zandvoort where Max wowed us all, or the incredible race weekend Lewis had in Brazil.
But the drama wasn’t purely contained to the track. More than in other seasons where Mercedes and Red Bull have locked horns, the drama happened off-track as well. Politics in F1 are not something new, but this year we’ve seen it pushed to the edge, and perhaps beyond that. There has been protests, illegal wings, reprimanded driver’s, reprimanded team principals, “rocket” engines, rulebook controversy and much, much more.
But of course, we cannot ignore the clashes between Lewis and Max, regardless of who initially is to blame. Take a look at Imola, where Max wrestled his way past Lewis on the first lap. In deteriorating weather conditions, Lewis spins off damaging his front wing. Limping back to the pits, he gets a stroke of luck with a red flag caused by his teammate Valtteri Bottas’ run-in with George Russel. Lewis manages to come in second, behind Max, and limit the damage in the driver’s standings.
Then there’s the big shunt at Silverstone. Through what is one of the fastest corners on the entire F1 calendar, Lewis tries to stick it up the inside of Max and collides with the Dutchman. Max flies off, and ends up in the tire wall, suffering a 57G impact in the process. Lewis is penalized, but overcomes the 10-second penalty and wins the race. A lot of people felt taking a penalty like that and STILL being able to win wasn’t right. You send someone to the hospital, I refuse to say it was deliberate, but end up winning the race? There are not too many sports where that would be possible.
Another high, or perhaps low depending on your perspective, is the Italian Grand Prix where Max is quite honestly too opportunistic going into the first chicane. No longer capable of making the turn, he hits Lewis’ car, is sent up and lands on top of the Mercedes. Both men can no longer continue to race. This time around, Max is handed a penalty and drops three gird places in the next race, held at the Sotchi circuit in Russia.
The tension gets almost unbearably high during the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah, new on the calendar for 2021. This ultra-fast street circuit has been built in a stunning 7 months, and even though it shows outside of the track, on the track it all seems very smooth. The track brings out the best in driver’s as pretty much the entire grid loves the fast, flowing nature of the track. The weekend would end in controversy yet again, as the FIA hands out multiple penalties, orders Max to give back the same place not once but three times, and the two title rivals have multiple close-calls. One incident, in particular, will go down in history though, as when Max attempts to let Lewis by, the latter is confused and rams into the back of the Red Bull. The only thing I’m going to say about this is I find it odd a multiple champion like Lewis doesn’t pounce at the chance to overtake Max, and claims he was “confused” as to what was going on.
The entire season has been a back and forth between the two men, with Lewis showing a blistering pace in the final few races. In the last stages of the final race of the year, caused by a fortunate/unfortunate crash and safety car situation just a few laps before the checkered flag, Max is given a chance to attack Lewis on fresher tires. With just half a lap to spare, he takes the lead and wins the race, and ultimately his first-ever World Driver’s Championships. Mercedes has filed two protests regarding the whole safety car situation, which are both rejected by the FIA.
The outcome & the future
Personally, I am chuffed to see Max win the title, something he has pursued for 20 years under the guidance of his father. It is a crowning achievement of the relentless devotion to becoming a world champion. Sure, it is not without controversy, but that has gone both ways this year. Lewis has had his share of good and bad fortune, costing or gaining points over the competition in the process.
But, and I do try to observe situations impartial as much as I can, it is also the season Lewis has been under immense pressure and shown a crack or two. Take Baku for instance, where he threw away a decent points finish and potential win in the first corner into the final laps of the race after Max has crashed due to a blown tire. The same can be said of the crash at Silverstone, or Hungary, or Italy. In the end, what could have been, is nothing but speculation, and we are left with the outcome as it has unfolded itself.
Looking towards the future, I sincerely hope the FIA, the teams and drivers have learned a thing or two from this season. The inconsistency in the penalties for instance, or the in-race interference from team principles, should be taken out of the sport. These heavily influence the outcome of a race, and the season, which it shouldn’t. We want good, proper, fair racing and that has been impacted by things coming from off the track too much.
I do feel, however, that the way this season has played out, has brought more people taking an interest in the sport than some of the seasons before it. After all, who doesn’t like a bit of drama and controversy, even if it is against the driver you’re rooting for?
Disclaimer: All images are sourced from F1-Fansite.com. We do not hold any rights to these images.