The 2021 Formula One World Championship is about to come to an end on Sunday, December 12th 2021, with the last and unmissable appointment of this season. We are in Abu Dhabi, at the Yas Marina circuit. The two contenders for the title are both at 369.5, so what defines the driver at the top of the standings are the victories, nine in favour of Max Verstappen, against eight in favour of Lewis Hamilton. Creating this situation of absolute parity are Lewis Hamilton's recent victory at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix and Max Verstappen's second position.
The former thus rises to thirty-one circuits on which he has won at least once, the latter equals the record for the most podiums in a season. Before him, only Michael Schumacher in 2002, Sebastian Vettel in 2011 and the same British Mercedes driver in 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019 managed to do so. The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has been the final round of every World Championship since 2014 and, with the renewal of the contract, will remain on the calendar for another nine years. Liberty Media CEO Stefano Domenicali comments:
"We are delighted to confirm that we will race in Abu Dhabi until 2030 thanks to this new agreement. We can't wait to enjoy the last race of a Championship that will make Formula One history. The promoters, ADMM, always create an incredible show for the last race of the year each season and thanks to the changes made to improve the track, we are excited to race in Abu Dhabi for many years to come".
This year, however, the circuit's layout features some changes, designed to increase overtaking opportunities, speed and loads in certain corners. The asphalt remains smooth, with an average level as far as tyre stress is concerned. The chicane formed by turns 5 and 6 is replaced by a straight section, the following hairpin is then brought forward and enlarged in order to increase the speed at which one enters the following straight. The succession of curves from 11 to 14 is replaced with a wide curve and the four narrow curves, from 17 to 20, which develop around the Yas Marina Hotel are widened and made faster.
The curves go from twenty-one to sixteen, consequently the circuit is shortened by 273 meters and the number of laps to be run is no longer 55 but 58. The works were followed by the Dromo of the Italian designer Jarno Zaffelli. From the simulations it emerges that lap times will be lowered by 1.4 seconds and it is estimated an increase in average lap speed of 20 km/h, going from 210 km/h to 232 km/h; consequently, teams will have to change their approach in defining the set-up. Despite the changes undergone by the circuit layout, Pirelli is providing the same compounds as in 2020, namely C3 as P Zero White hard, C4 as P Zero Yellow medium and C5 as P Zero Red soft, which are the softer compounds. Mario Isola comments:
"Yas Marina is a well-established fixture for the season finale, but the changes made to the circuit will provide a twist and the promise of a breathtaking finale to what has been a spectacular season. This is the first time we're facing the new layout, which also includes resurfaced areas of the track, but we can rely on simulations and other information to come prepared. Generally speaking, thanks to the creation of faster corners, the track as a whole is faster and has more overtaking opportunities. The result of these changes is an increase in vertical loads, especially on the fronts. But we don't expect the severity of the track on the tyres to change significantly, which is why we decided to keep the softer nomination. The week after the race, teams will test with the final 18-inch specification for 2022 using mule cars. We will first see the final 2022 single-seater package in action with the new tyres during early season testing at the end of February".
The federation confirms the two DRS zones used in the previous year. The first one is located on the long straight between turn 5 and turn 6, the second zone is set between turn 8 and turn 9. The three points where the drivers must respect the limits concern turn 7 and the exit of turn 15 and turn 16. Many are the controversies that accompany Formula 1 from December 6th 2021 until today, regarding the different episodes happened on the circuit of Saudi Arabia. The most serious event concerns a breake test by Verstappen against Hamilton, behavior punished by the FIA with a ten second penalty. It is therefore feared that an unfair duel by Max Verstappen could develop in the race on this last stage. However, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolf hopes to see an incident-free finish between the two drivers:
"The race in Jeddah had so many repercussions that I think everyone will get to benefit from this race, adapting for the Abu Dhabi event. If a similar drive were to be repeated at the Emirates, with the stewards assessing it against the rules, at that point there would be another penalty, and this would only lead to more confusion. I really don't think the World Championship deserves a final decided or influenced by an incident. I have a lot of faith in the self-regulation system".
In addition, Wolff returns to what happened in Brazil, adding:
"At Interlagos I had said that a dangerous precedent would be set for the rest of the Championship. Today we saw many collisions that were similar to those that happened in Brazil, even if at lower speeds. I absolutely do not want this to happen in Abu Dhabi. The World Championship will end up in favour of whoever is the fastest, or whoever has the fastest car, but without taking anything away from each other".
Helmut Marko, Red Bull's Austrian consultant, is not of the same opinion, so much so that he incites Max Verstappen to race as he has done in the last few races:
"I honestly don't see any reason why Max should race less aggressively in Abu Dhabi".
From Red Bull's side, concerns are not only about the behavior of the two drivers on track, but are also directed towards Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes Power Unit; team principal Christian Horner is confident in Max's chances of winning the title.
"It's not over yet, Max is a fighter. And if there's one driver who deserves this win, it's Max, because Mercedes has the better car. He drove exceptionally well, for me he is the driver of the year".
Helmut Marko himself defines the Mercedes Power Unit as a rocket, leaving room for some not-so-optimistic statements:
"Abu Dhabi has changed its layout and unfortunately the speed released by Hamilton's engine makes him uncatchable. In S2 and S3 in Jeddah he was a second faster, you can't defend yourself. I don't think people have realized what Max is doing in that car. I don't think people recognize that we haven't had the best single-seater all season, Max has turned that around, it's down to him. The Q3 lap he was completing is the best lap he's ever done in one of our cars, before the corner where he impacted. But it's all forgotten, because he didn't complete the lap, but it was something exceptional".
Despite the Red Bull Racing team's negative feelings in recent days, they are not giving up:
"We will fight, we will attack the next race with everything we have. If we don't win, it certainly won't be because we didn't try. It's frustrating, and I'm afraid there has been some confusion: some incidents have been punished, others not. Max tends to take the heaviest of verdicts, as was seen this past weekend. In the contact between him and Lewis, I think there was an unprecedented circumstance in which Verstappen clearly slowed down, downshifting gears and reaching a lower speed than you face at the last corner. But despite this, Lewis didn't want to overtake him, so that he wouldn't be the first to cross the DRS line. He tried in every way to avoid ending up in front of Max, who had been warned to leave his position by the stewards and Race Direction, and before that by the team. There was indeed a peculiar episode between the two, where, for the first time, Lewis did not want to overtake Max. However, one of the most impressive moments, for me, was when we arrived in Jeddah, on a circuit that no one had ever driven on before: Max took to the track and beat everyone by two and a half seconds. It took the others half an hour to reach his times".
Christian Horner adds his own thoughts on a possible points deduction in relation to any impropriety on the part of his driver:
"It's all about consistency. What happened at Turn 4 in Brazil should also apply to this race. You can't just wake up and say: 'OK, we'll do it like this from now on'. Something like that will make a mockery of the way the Championship is run. Abu Dhabi is one of the twenty-two races of the calendar: what is the difference between this Grand Prix and Silverstone or Hungaroring? There has to be consistency in the management of sanctions. I can understand why Toto Wolff and Lewis Hamilton are pushing for this, but nobody approaches this race with the intention of an accident. We will try to win on track".
Finally, the Red Bull team principal concluded by saying:
"Mercedes have more men in marketing and communications than our mechanical teams, it would be our biggest achievement ever if we could beat them. There is no denying or condoning Lewis' achievements. Statistically speaking, he is the most successful driver in the history of Formula One. And yet, if we put Max behind the wheel of a Mercedes, I would have no doubt who would be the better of the two, and the same would be true if Lewis came to Red Bull. Anything is possible with Max: we didn't expect to be competitive in Jeddah, and it was all thanks to him. No amount of recognition will ever be enough for what he has managed to do with his driving style. Very rarely have we seen minimal differences between Hamilton and Bottas, just as in the past between Hamilton and Rosberg. Max, on the other hand, has been consistent with performance throughout the season. When Mercedes increased their speed in the summer, he was only able to keep the Championship in contention because of his talent. He was simply fantastic. It is often overlooked what he has been able to do with a car that is less powerful than his rival's. He has an incredible ability to push and push. He has an incredible ability to push to the limit with less difficulty than the other drivers. He is able to perform at his best without any particular stress, staying alert to what is going on during the race, as well as keeping an eye on his car's data and the gap to his competitors. That's a skill that Lewis also has, but what surprises me is another aspect: growing up I've seen few other drivers who race with their heart, like Nigel Mansell did for example, and Verstappen is one of them. He really gives everything. Also, he doesn't behave like a superstar; when he finishes a session, for example, he goes and plays FIFA against his friends. Of course money has an importance in his life but, on the whole, he has not betrayed his values".
Adding pathos to what has just been said, Red Bull Racing advisor Helmut Marko, speaking to the media, states that a smear campaign is underway against Max Verstappen.
"Max's mood? I think he's relatively relaxed, but obviously there's all this pressure being put on him. They make him out to be a bad, aggressive driver and that's not true. We've told him not to read the press, not to look at social media. He's doing that, he's just concentrating on his job and as we've seen in this session he's already bringing the results home. We feel there is a campaign going on against him, we have seen that in the last few races Mercedes have had a better car, while we have not got the best out of ours. All we need here is a smooth, clean weekend. For sure we can win. Max is ready for the title. Sunday will be a fair fight. This is Formula One, it's racing. It's hard racing, but I hope there won't be any strange decisions. If there are penalties, they have to be fair for each driver. They shouldn't always be against Max. But they're already trying to blame him before the race even starts. They're already talking about deducting points and stuff like that. You have to see who causes the crash first. I remember Silverstone, for example. To make a 24-year-old boy the victim of this campaign is really unfair".
The climate inside Brakley's team is more relaxed: the Mercedes team principal, in fact, does not want a better ending, thanks also to Lewis' successes at Interlagos, Losail and Jeddah.
"Thinking about Abu Dhabi, I admit that this was the result we were hoping for. We have taken a big step forward in the constructors' championship and in the drivers' championship we are level on points with Max. It's the best possible scenario for us. Whoever wins in Abu Dhabi takes the Championship".
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff commented on the FIA's decision to intervene in the event of any impropriety on the part of his Dutch rival:
"What we saw in Brazil and in Jeddah was beyond the limit, but it's good to see that the FIA and the stewards intervened".
And regarding the car's loss of competitiveness, compared to the 2020 Formula One World Championship, dictated by the rule change, the team principal adds:
"The rules have changed and we didn't get on well, but I should only blame myself because we could have identified this situation earlier. But now we've arrived in Abu Dhabi with equal points. 2022 season? I don't think you can make comparisons, because next year the rules are different and the way the car generates downforce is different".
Despite the high tension, Christian Horner admits that he will shake hands as a sign of sportsmanship with Toto Wolff:
"If it wasn't for Verstappen we wouldn't be in this position, we still have a race where we can turn the tide, which at the moment is all in Hamilton's favour. We will see where we are at the chequered flag. We have often found the regulations frustrating, but I think the same emotion has been felt by Mercedes on a few occasions. Will I shake hands with Toto at the end of the race? Yes".
Toto Wolff also spoke about the rivalry between himself and Christian Horner:
"It's an absolutely genuine rivalry, precisely because there's so much at stake. We are ambitious teams and people who are fighting tooth and nail to win this Championship. Once you are involved in this challenge, there is no way in your mind to create a space for the other person. At least, that's true for me. That doesn't necessarily mean having negative or positive emotions. Sometimes I got carried away when I heard some comments that annoyed me, but it happened a couple of times. It is impossible to establish a relationship, not least because the stakes are so high. Everyone tries to defend the interests of their team, and I think we are different people in the way we interpret the world as well. I just try to remain authentic and do what I think is right and proper, and he does the same in his own way. Maybe, one day, we might even have a laugh, but not today".
On the eve of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Masashi Yamamoto and Toyoharu Tanabe, Honda F1 project managers, say:
"Finally we have arrived at the last race of the season here in Abu Dhabi. It is an important moment and not only on the track, because this weekend marks the culmination of Honda's last seven years in Formula One. It is therefore with a mixture of sadness and happiness that I look forward to this final weekend. However, it is also true that the Championships are not yet decided and, together with Red Bull Racing, we are fighting hard against Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton for both titles, so our commitment to do our best this weekend will be more intense than ever. Honda returned to Formula One in 2015 and the project has had many ups and downs. The beginning was very difficult. When I think back to those early days, I can't hide the fact that I feel great pride in being in contention for the Championship. Winning titles was our dream and we pursued it step by step. Now, that dream is almost within our grasp, but I honestly don't know if we will be smiling or crying at the end of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. All the members of our team will go to the track with their heads held high to demonstrate the competitive spirit that has always been our driving force. We will follow our dreams all the way to the chequered flag, dreams that we share with our fans who have always supported us even in difficult times".
And Toyoharu Tanabe concludes:
"Although we know the Yas Marina circuit well, the layout of the track has been changed since last year and several corners have been modified. The track is now slightly shorter and several corners have been made faster, all of which will mean a different energy management of our power unit. Over the weekend, we will maximise the performance of the power unit using data from past races and our simulation for the new layout, as well as the track data we will acquire in Friday practice. Needless to say, this is also the last race of this Honda F1 project, our last time racing with Scuderia AlphaTauri and Red Bull Racing, who have both been incredible partners. We will also be fighting hard for the Championship, with Max and Lewis side by side in the standings. We will keep pushing until the end. All the Honda staff involved in this project are absolutely determined to win and we will push as hard as we can to do so".
The enthusiasm for this season finale is also felt in the hearts of all the drivers on the track. At the end of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, McLaren driver Daniel Ricciardo was quite elated:
"Perfect parity in the standings. This is a gift for the sport, a dream scenario. I would call it a Battle Royal. The pressure couldn't be higher, may the best man win. It's something I've been dreaming of for years, of course I would have preferred to be one of the protagonists but it's a magnificent story, the veteran who can break every record and the young man looking for his first success. For the average fan it's the best that can happen".
The Australian driver, along with Fernando Alonso, followed closely Max Verstappen's Q3 lap in Jeddah qualifying, in which the Dutchman saw pole position slip away. Because of this duel, the Constructors' title soon fades into the background, yet the Mercedes team will only need to score 17 points in Abu Dhabi to claim their eighth consecutive Constructors' title in the turbo-hybrid era. Horner, unlike the drivers' title, has little hope of breaking Mercedes' dominance:
"To win the Constructors' title we need a miracle".
But he is not losing heart, as the title that Max Verstappen will be able to achieve is crucial for him and for the whole team:
"The Drivers' title is the one that makes history, that people remember, while the Constructors' title is economically important. On the one hand it's glory, on the other money. We're going to do everything we can to win the Drivers' title, the guys in the team should be proud of what we've done so far, we've won ten races, taking Mercedes to play for everything in the final round. We're going to prepare properly, we're going to raise our heads again. We are not beaten".
Helmut Marko, meanwhile, reflects on what he said earlier and, prompted also by the analyses carried out by the FIA, which confirmed the Dutch driver's misbehaviour by defining his move as a sudden braking, apologises:
"At the time of the TV interviews, I conveyed exactly the information that I had received from the engineers beforehand was obviously not correct, so I apologise for that. Hopefully the unfortunate chapter in Saudi Arabia is now closed, in any case, we are just looking ahead. We want to win in Abu Dhabi and therefore win the title. We will do everything to achieve that. But we will not take any unfair action. Already in Saudi Arabia we had the pace to keep up with Hamilton, the Abu Dhabi track should be more suitable for no".
Among the many controversies that have characterised these days, a discussion has made its way into the Mercedes team regarding the sponsor Kingspan. This company was involved in the Grenfell Tower fire, which killed 72 people. The partnership between Mercedes and Kingspan has been terminated by mutual agreement, as this was considered the best choice. The logo will no longer be present on the single-seaters. In the meantime, McLaren will be appearing at the final round with a special livery; the new outfit worn in Abu Dhabi is linked to sponsor BAT to promote the electronic cigarette brand Vuse. The design was created by the artist Rabab Tantawy, an Egyptian girl who lives in the United Arab Emirates.
The challenge for the podium in the Constructors' Championship was also fierce when it came to third place. McLaren and Ferrari, race after race, have won the points needed to aspire to the top three. Despite everything, the Maranello team arrives in Abu Dhabi with an advantage of 38 points, a gap that is almost impossible for the English team to close. One factor that could help the Scuderia Ferrari in Abu Dhabi is, according to Mattia Binotto, the well-known simulator, whose inauguration scheduled for the final weekend of the Championship was brought forward to that of Jeddah, and which has helped the drivers to achieve some excellent results, including Charles Leclerc's fourth place in qualifying:
"We brought it forward by one race, we didn't think we could do it. For now it hasn't given us anything extra because we are still in the process of fine tuning. It will, however, give us a better performance soon. We think its realism compared to the previous version is greater because of better data correlation. It will be an evolution of the current one and there will be an improvement".
Even in the event of a one-two and a fast lap by the British manufacturer, Ferrari only needs six points to stay on the bottom step of the podium. Although the challenge seems lost, Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo remain optimistic:
"I'm looking forward to racing in Abu Dhabi after a disappointing weekend in Saudi Arabia. I think we deserved a lot more and hopefully our luck will change this weekend. There's a new layout in Abu Dhabi and I'm excited to try it out. We had a good result there last year, so hopefully we can finish the season well again this year".
But they're not the only ones excited, for George Russell this also represents the 59th and final race aboard the Williams team cars. In fact, from 2022 the British driver will be part of the Mercedes team, alongside Lewis Hamilton. The driver brings with him 16 points, nine of which came from his second place at the Belgian Grand Prix, his first podium finish in Formula 1:
"We head to Abu Dhabi for the last race of the season and what is sure to be a weekend full of mixed emotions as my journey with Williams comes to an end. It's been an incredible three years with the team, with many highs but also some lows, and I'm determined to say goodbye in the best possible way to help the team achieve eighth place in the Constructors' Championship. It would be a fitting reward for all the hard work and effort everyone has put in at Grove over the last few years, when we have struggled after our difficulties when I joined the team. I'm sure there will be a lot of feelings and emotions after Sunday's Grand Prix but, until then, I want to concentrate as much as possible on the track to finish a positive weekend".
Unlike his teammate, Nicholas Latifi, who will remain at Williams alongside Alex Albon who returns to the track after a year:
"There are always mixed feelings about approaching the last race of the year but I'm excited to hit the track at Yas Marina. It will be interesting to see the impact of the changes made to the track, but it's also nice to see circuits trying to make improvements, and I think it will provide a more exciting spectacle for the fans. Our main goal this weekend will be to secure eighth place in the Constructors' Championship. The whole team has worked very hard throughout the year; it would be nice to be rewarded with this result and finish our season on a high".
The one who will experience the race from a different point of view is undoubtedly Sergio Perez, who said of the season that is drawing to a close:
"There are many positive and many negative aspects. First of all I have to say that it has been a very challenging year. For me this has been a very intense season, having made my debut in a team fighting for the title. Taking time to adapt to a car like this is not easy, there is a lot of pressure and you have to adapt your style very quickly to be in the fight with the best. It's been a very intense year but I have to say I'm happy with it. Of course, I wanted much more than what I got. But I think the most important thing was to adapt to the team, and from that point of view I am ready to get off to a good start next year. For the team this is certainly a very important weekend. I will do everything to get pole position and win on Sunday, I have to work very hard to get the results for the team".
So does Valtteri Bottas, who comes to the end of his adventure with Mercedes, as from 2022 the Finn will race with Alfa Romeo. To thank all his team, Valtteri will wear a special helmet with the most important photos of his time with Mercedes.
"For me after this race a new chapter will open, but now I want to enjoy this weekend as much as possible. Normally this is also the best approach to get results. Certainly this is the end of an era, but the emotions will come after the race. I'm not there yet. Also because, given the situation, there wouldn't be much room for emotions either. I think they will all come later. I still have a role to play for the team, as the race in the Constructors' Championship is still open. And hopefully I can also help Lewis for the Drivers' Championship. There's a lot at stake. I'm ready, as is Lewis and the whole team. Who wins? Lewis".
Although between AlphaTauri and Alpine the fight for fifth place is closed, the pair of drivers from the team from Faenza, Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda, both confirmed for 2022, will try to stay ahead of the two drivers from Alpine, a team that is 29 points behind the Italian one. In particular, the Frenchman is in ninth position in the drivers' standings and his aim is to try and overtake McLaren driver Daniel Ricciardo:
"Jeddah was the craziest race I've ever been a part of, I think, to really understand everything that happened, to see the battles and the crashes, I had to wait to watch the race on TV again. On the single lap this track is really fantastic, but in the race it got a bit crowded! We showed good pace again from Friday's free practice and that allowed us to have another fantastic qualifying session. In the end, I started sixth and crossed the line in the same position: even though I had lost some positions after the start, it is the final result that counts. And then I am happy to have reached, for the first time in my Formula 1 career, the threshold of 100 points in a season. Last year in Abu Dhabi I got points: I started tenth and finished eighth. I've always liked this race, there's a special atmosphere because it's the last one of the season, the culmination of all the hard work of a year. And the track itself is quite interesting too, although the layout has undergone some changes this year: it's now faster and smoother overall, so I'm looking forward to finding out if that will make overtaking easier. This weekend also marks the end of an era the last time I will be on track with these cars, which I have always raced with since I started in Formula One. Next year we will have a big change in the technical regulations that will bring completely new car designs, with different tyres. So it would be nice to end this positive year for the team with a good result and a spectacular race".
A similar argument can be made for team-mate Yuki Tsunoda, who is about to wrap up his first season in Formula One. The Japanese driver is in 14th position in the drivers' standings, and is looking to try and overtake Aston Martin driver Lance Stroll:
"The Saudi Arabian track definitely delivered the exciting race that everyone predicted even though my Sunday didn't go as well as I would have liked. I really enjoyed driving on that track at high speed and with such close walls. We had a good pace in the race, but I should have been more patient in trying to overtake Vettel. I learned another lesson in this rookie season. Overall, though, I'm quite satisfied with my driving at the moment. As for Abu Dhabi, I've never raced there, but I had the chance to try the Yas Marina track in a Formula 1 car at the end of last year's rookie test. I still remember that test very well. I had tried a Formula 1 car before, but not the car of that season. It was exciting for me, especially the first time out of the garage. In fact, I will have new things to learn this year, as they have made some pretty radical changes to the track layout in an attempt to make overtaking easier. My first impression is that the layout is now much faster and smoother, so it will also be interesting to see what effect this will have on tyre wear, for example, which was considerable in the past. Even though the track will be very different, I still feel like I have experience there. It should be easier to adapt, so I will try to maximise the opportunity to score as many points as possible. It will be my last time racing as a rookie, so I'm going to enjoy my last race with this status and try to end the season with a good result".
Nikita Mazepin, in the days leading up to the start of the race weekend, said he was disappointed with the behaviour of Vettel and Verstappen at the end of Q1 of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, in which he had openly complained to the respective drivers of the Aston Martin and Red Bull teams, guilty of slowing him down during his fast lap. The same manoeuvre had infuriated Vettel and Verstappen themselves earlier in the season, when they were the victims of the same approach to the relevant timed lap, in that case pointing to Mazepin as the culprit.
"We had an hour-long meeting with Michael Masi, who reminded us of the rules. The older generation of drivers had reiterated that it was part of the gentlemen's agreement not to overtake at the last corner. Then, the next day, and in an unsafe manner, the same drivers come in aggressively at the last corner and keep you behind them. The rules are the same for everyone, and I'm new to the sport. So I'll play along and do what others do. But what I think is unacceptable is to criticise the young generation and then, as the season goes on, change their approach slightly. I need to learn and analyse, because what happened was very disappointing, as I was overtaken by Vettel and Max and both then braked on the straight. I had to brake as well. If you lose a second and a half going into Turn 1 there is no point in continuing at the pace we are going. I am angry, but next time I won't believe what someone will say about the gentlemen's agreement".
Mazepin remembers the incident that took place in Bahrain, and talks about his state of mind at the time:
"I was very worried about my actions, where I had done something very similar to what I used to put into practice in Formula 2, there where it would be taken without any criticism. I had overtaken some cars that were going very slow in the last corner because I felt the need to push. Later on I was challenged with heavy controversy about the fact that such a manoeuvre was not acceptable in Formula 1. However, twenty races later, it is interesting to note that the same drivers who have long experience in the Circus were the first to overtake me. It was a group of four or five cars that carried out this manoeuvre, and I was 150 metres from the start of the timed lap".
The enthusiasm for the grand finale, however, seems to have no match in the feelings of Kimi Raikkonen, who is preparing to face his last race in Formula One. For the 2007 World Champion this seems to be a race like any other:
"It's the last race of the season and, this time, also the last of my career, but I don't think about it too much. Of course, I know it will be different once I cross the finish line and I am aware that this chapter of my life is closed. But once I'm in the cockpit, it will be a race like any other. I want to end my career with a good result, for me and for the team, and I also want to enjoy this weekend with my family and friends, who will be with me to say goodbye to Formula 1".
To pay tribute to the Finnish driver, the Alfa Romeo team decided to say goodbye with a special dedication, a message written on the chassis: Dear Kimi we will leave you alone now. But the team's dedications don't end there. Even for Antonio Giovinazzi, who is set to bid farewell to the top series in order to move up to Formula E next year, the team has prepared a tribute with a message in Italian, also embossed on the chassis: Grazie di tutto, Antonio. The adrenaline that has characterised these days does not only concern the drivers on the track but also all the television viewers and the public, so much so that in England and Ireland the Grand Prix can be seen live on the air, as it happens in Italy, to give everyone the chance to watch the battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen in real time.
Many are the fears that this challenge could end with a zero-zero: a possibility that Micheal Masi wants to exclude, avoiding that the Championship could be decided by unfair manoeuvres between the two. Therefore, the race director declares that in case of contacts or suspicious situations, the stewards can deduct classic points or disqualify a competitor by sending the teams the points where the regulation specifies such a measure. On the eve of free practice, the drivers are clear about who they are rooting for, and so during Thursday's press conference the first driver to speak out in favour of Hamilton is his future team-mate George Russell, while Kimi Raikkonen is leaning towards Verstappen.
"Maybe I would prefer Red Bull to win, but just for a change".
Alonso also makes no secret of his preference for Max:
"They both seem to be at their highest level at the moment, they are driving incredibly well. They don't make any mistakes and they push their limits every race. They are first and second in every race because they are on another level. It's fantastic to watch. But this final race will definitely be tense for them. I think Mercedes have been performing a bit better lately. They've won several races in a row now. Max though is driving, in my opinion, a step ahead of all of us. I think Mercedes deserve the Constructors' Championship, because the car is superior, and Max, maybe overall for the year, has been driving a step ahead of everybody else. We all saw the [qualifying] lap in Jeddah, until he hit the wall in the last corner. That lap there came from Max, not Red Bull".
Red Bull family driver Pierre Gasly can't help but support Verstappen, but has concerns about a possible incident between the two:
"I think Max will be in front. But I don't know if they will finish the race".
The group of drivers in favour of Verstappen grows ever larger, with four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel joining in. The German driver's preference is a declaration of love towards Michael Schumacher:
"I would like Hamilton not to break Schumacher's record. I wouldn't care if someone other than me did. If you also consider the team in general, I still feel closer to Red Bull than to Mercedes. I shared those memories with Michael Schumacher and now I will share them with Mick. I think it's great like that. Even more so, my heart says Verstappen, simply because I don't want Michael's record to be broken. If I were to follow my head, then I would say may the best man win. Both Max and Lewis deserve the title for what they have shown throughout this season. If Hamilton could win it, it wouldn't change anything for me - he could get another one, rather than two or three more, but Schumacher will always be the greatest for me. It's sad and it's a great pity that Michael can't be here to watch us".
He then added a personal comment on the performance of Mick Schumacher, Michael Schumacher's son:
"If you look closely, you can see how well Mick has performed in this car. I'd like him to have a better performing car at his disposal for next year. What has impressed me most is the way he works with the team. Despite his prospects with this car, he has motivated the whole team, who now follow him. He has a work ethic that drives him to be one of the first to the paddock and one of the last to go home in the evening".
The four-time World Champion, who triumphed with the Red Bull team, is snubbed by Christian Horner, team principal of the Austrian-British team, who says Sebastian Vettel is a fantastic driver, but Max Verstappen is the best driver he has ever worked with.
"He is the best driver we have seen. I have no doubt he's the best we've had in the car, in terms of skill and absolute dedication".
Ferrari's drivers, meanwhile, remain neutral, wishing for a clean final duel. Carlos Sainz Jr., in fact, declares:
"For my part, I just want them to be able to have this final weekend cleanly, and to put on a show, above all, and more than anything else, for the image of the sport. It must be a benefit to Formula 1, which, before being a show, remains a sporting competition. Last Sunday evening I turned on the TV to find out what had happened between the two in the race, as everyone was talking about it. Once I saw the episode, I realised how close this challenge is, and how spectacular it has been for Formula 1 throughout this season".
However, the Spaniard's least favourite aspect of the challenge has centred on social media, which he sees as an expression of less than genuine support:
"Unfortunately on Twitter and social media there is a lot of polarisation. I don't want to say it's a conflict between the fans, but this division makes the fight a little less exciting when you see the two sides fighting so much against each other. I think you have to be a bit more neutral, enjoy the fight and let the best man win. I'm not going to say who my driver of the season has been, particularly because if I say one, then one side will criticise me. I don't want to take a position because it doesn't make sense. Also because, I repeat, everything is already very polarised on social media".
Charles Leclerc, on the other hand, is trying to stay focused on himself and his goal of taking fifth in the standings. The challenge for the title of first of the others is contested between Charles, Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz Jr. The first two are separated by 4 points, while Carlos is 4.5 points behind Lando and 8.5 behind his teammate. The Monegasque driver is keen to stress that the challenge for fifth place is not yet over:
"Is the race for fifth place over? No. There is only a four-point gap. Everything will be resolved in this race I think. It will be fun. Hopefully we will be competitive, the last few races have been good for us. We were a bit unlucky last week, although the pace was very strong. Hopefully we can have a good race and bring home this fifth position in the drivers' championship".
The British rider seems to be more optimistic, by virtue of the track looking like it could be in his favour:
"We were quite strong here last year this had been one of our best weekends. We were only a couple of tenths from pole position. It's not necessarily better this year, because the track has changed a lot, and so have the cars. But this track tends to be reasonably good for us, so hopefully the same thing can happen this weekend".
He then goes on to ironise about what happened in Jeddah, provoking Max Verstappen and the stewards:
"What can I do to stop Leclerc? Well, I can stop him with the brake test, in the end it's only a ten second penalty".
Another driver rooting for Hamilton can only be his future teammate George Russell.
"I would love to see him win. What he has achieved, especially in the last period, is extraordinary. He's been able to compete against a superior machine like Red Bull, which was particularly impressive at the start of the season. Verstappen has also done an outstanding job, and I think they both deserve the championship, for different reasons. I hope to see a fair challenge".
The press conference gets into full swing as the two protagonists enter, Hamilton begins to speak:
"A lot of people wouldn't have thought we'd get to play it out to the end. I think it was a great team effort. The eighth title has never been won by anyone in the past. I am grateful. I know the emotions you go through to get here".
The floor is passed to Verstappen:
"After last year I didn't think I had any hope of playing for the title. We have been competitive, we have achieved important results, even with a bit of bad luck. Overall we can be really satisfied. And proud of the teamwork that brought us here to fight for the title".
The fateful question does not take long to arrive, everyone wants to know the answers of the two drivers regarding a possible accident. Verstappen begins:
"As a driver you don't think about it. You face the weekend to do the best you can and win the race. But that's what the media is talking about. I came here trying to do the best I can and win".
As Hamilton responds:
"I cannot control the things that happen around me. I can control how I behave. I don't think the title can be won incorrectly. I'm here to do the best with this incredible team. We made an incredible comeback. In the last few races we have been in an enviable position. We must not waste energy on things that are out of our control".
On the issue opened by Michael Masi regarding the deduction of points, Hamilton hopes that it will not come down to having to impose these penalties:
"Such incidents have happened in the past. The stewards took precautions. They were right to do so. But hopefully it won't be necessary to use this measure. I hope it will be a great race. I have no opinion. I certainly don't want to see the stewards and they won't want to see me".
Verstappen, on the other hand, remains very cool about it:
"This is something that can happen all the time, I don't think anything new has been added for this race".
Before the last Grand Prix of the Formula 1 World Championship of the 2021 season draws to a close, on Tuesday the 7th of December 2021, Alpine announced the use of Australian Oscar Piastri, leader of the Formula 2 championship and future reserve driver of the French team, in tests dedicated to young drivers that will take place a few days after the Grand Prix. Piastri said:
"I am very excited to drive in the young drivers' test. It's almost like my first official day in my new job for next year, when I will become the team's reserve driver. Any day in a Formula 1 car is pretty special, but driving the current one with other drivers on the track in a somewhat competitive environment is very nice. Thanks to the team for this opportunity, I'm certainly looking forward to it and to working through a very comprehensive test programme on the day".
Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi added:
"Oscar has had a fantastic Formula 2 season this year, once again proving his class, and this appearance at the Young Driver Test is well deserved. This test will be part of Oscar's continued development as he prepares to become the team's reserve driver for 2022, to help and assist Fernando and Esteban and our development teams on and off the track. In parallel, while Oscar picks up speed with the current car, we will already be looking forward to 2022 with our current drivers as they test the new 18-inch tyres for next year. It's a good opportunity for us to learn in preparation for next year's challenges on all fronts".
Later the same day, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile publishes the entry list of the ten teams and twenty drivers for the following season. On Wednesday 8th of December 2021, Scuderia Ferrari announces that Russian Formula 2 driver Robert Shwartzman, a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy and currently second in the drivers' championship in the junior category, will take part in the usual end-of-season tests dedicated to young drivers. Shwartzman, as well as already being committed to Haas, will also drive for the Italian manufacturer. Robert shows:
"Extremely happy to be able to carry out another test with the Scuderia. It's a great honour for me, but it's also an important responsibility and I want to thank Ferrari for their trust in me. I will try to enjoy the day as much as possible and be useful in collecting data for the team".
Keeping in the same vein, on Thursday 9th of December 2021 the Williams team will announce the use of American Logan Sargeant in the young drivers' tests scheduled for the week, driving a Formula 1 car for the first time. A member of the Williams Driver Academy, Logan took third in the Formula 3 championship and also debuted in the Formula 2 championship this season.
“I can’t wait for my first run in a Formula 1 car and want to thank the team for trusting me with this amazing opportunity. I’ve been spending time in the factory at Grove and getting to grips with the simulator, which has helped me get an initial feel for the characteristics of the FW43B, but to be able to get out on track will be an incredible experience and one that I won’t forget. I’ll be going into the test looking to perform the best I can and to learn as much as possible from the team”.
Williams Sporting Director Sven Smeets, who started at the team in November, added:
"I’m very much looking forward to seeing Logan in the FW43B and I’m pleased that Williams can provide him with his first outing in Formula 1 machinery; I’m sure it will be a very special moment for him. While we won’t be running a mule car using the 18-inch Pirelli tyres, the test will still be beneficial for the team. It will also be an incredibly valuable opportunity for Logan to fully understand how we operate trackside. I know that having such an immersive experience will only build upon his evident skill and allows the team to continue to support his development whilst capitalising on his talent".
On the same day, Haas confirmed for 2022 and for the third consecutive year the team's reserve driver, Brazilian Pietro Fittipaldi. Haas team principal Guenther Steiner said:
"This was a very straightforward decision for us - to keep Pietro on as our official test and reserve driver. Pietro knows the inner workings of our team very well, having been with us for so long now. He proved to us last year that he was ready to step-up and drive when required and obviously his presence in the team this year has brought continuity as well. We’re delighted to continue our relationship and we look forward to having him onboard again in 2022".
"I’m naturally very happy and excited again by the opportunity to continue my association with Haas. I’ve been with the team for a few seasons now and they very much feel like family. I’ve learned a lot in my time and I hope I can keep contributing with the introduction of the new generation of Formula 1 car in 2022. It’s going to be exciting to see what’s coming with the new package and I’m obviously as keen as the rest of the team to see what the VF-22 will accomplish on-track".
Returning to the previous day, on Wednesday 8th of December 2021 the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile announced the renewal of the contract to run the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on the Formula 1 World Championship calendar until 2030. The race remains on the calendar as the final round of the championship. Speaking about the contract renewal, Liberty Media CEO Stefano Domenicali said:
"We are delighted to confirm that we will be racing in Abu Dhabi until 2030 under this new agreement. We are hugely looking forward to the season finale this weekend when more Formula 1 history will be made. The promoter, ADMM, always creates an incredible show for the final race of every Formula 1 season and combined with the changes made to improve the racing on the Yas Marina Circuit we are excited for many years of racing in Abu Dhabi that is ahead of us".
Saif Al Noaimi, CEO of ADMM, said:
"The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and Yas Marina Circuit continue to introduce hundreds of millions of spectators and TV viewers to Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates. The signing of a new multi-year deal with the Formula One Group not only represents the strength of our relationship but reaffirms our commitment to delivering an unparalleled and world-class race weekend experience for all visitors to enjoy".
Finally, during the weekend, an agreement will be signed between the manufacturers and the Formula 1 leadership to use the helmet cams more frequently in the following season. This season it was used for the first time in the Belgian Grand Prix with Fernando Alonso, while the following day managing director Ross Brawn and engineer Pat Symonds will announce that they will leave their roles at the end of 2022 within Liberty Media and the federation.
Heading into the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Dutch Red Bull Racing driver Max Verstappen and British Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton lead the drivers' standings. Verstappen leads the rankings on the back of nine wins, compared to Hamilton's eight, over the course of the Championship. Both drivers need more points than their rivals to win the drivers' championship. Verstappen would be the 34th driver in Formula One history to win the title, the first Dutchman, and the fourth-youngest driver ever, while Hamilton would win the title for the record eighth time in the category and the fifth time in a row, breaking the record of seven world titles held by German driver Michael Schumacher.
Verstappen would be champion in the event of tenth place with the fastest lap, with Hamilton ninth, while the latter would be champion in the event of tenth place, without Verstappen getting any points, but with the fastest lap. In the event of both competitors retiring, Verstappen would be champion because of his nine wins, compared to Hamilton's eight. The drivers' title is decided for the thirtieth time in the last race, and for the first time since 2016, between Lewis Hamilton and Germany's Nico Rosberg, then the latter triumphing. It is the second time in the history of the category that two drivers fighting for the title come into the last Grand Prix of the season with the same points in the standings.
The first time it happened was in the 1974 season, with the Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi in a McLaren-Ford Cosworth, later world champion, and the Swiss Clay Regazzoni in a Ferrari, in the United States Grand Prix held at Watkins Glen. As far as the constructors' championship is concerned, Mercedes leads the championship with 28 points over Red Bull Racing. To win its eighth consecutive title, strengthening its record of consecutive titles in the category since 2014, the German team needs to score 17 points more than the Austrian team. The constructors' title is decided in the last race for the first time since the 2008 season, between Ferrari and McLaren, with the Italian team then winning.
The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is held at its classic location on the calendar, at the beginning of December, as has been the case in the last two editions of the race. Established as the final event of the championship, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is the 22nd race of the season, an absolute record in a Formula One season. Never before had the top category represented as many as twenty-two Grand Prix races in a Championship. The previous record of twenty-one races was set in 2016, 2018 and 2019. The race, theoretically, would have been the 23rd of the season, before the reduction in the number of events as it was announced last August that the Japanese Grand Prix, cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, would not be replaced.
After the Bahrain Grand Prix, the first race of the season, and the previous new Grand Prix in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the Grand Prix is the fourth to be held in the Middle East in this championship, setting a new record. The race was originally scheduled to take place on the 5th of December 2021, the same day as the previous new Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, but following the postponement of the Australian Grand Prix at the beginning of the season due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which was subsequently cancelled, the Australian Grand Prix was postponed by a week. On the eve of the Hungarian Grand Prix, the event's organisers made known the possibility of an exchange of dates with the Saudi race.
The United Arab Emirates was one of a group of countries that the United Kingdom had been monitoring with regard to travel in connection with the health emergency quarantine. Formula One staff travelling to the country would have to undergo a ten-day quarantine before returning to the UK. Unlike the previous edition, which was held behind closed doors due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the race will see spectators in the stands, as has been the case since the French Grand Prix. Of all the races run this season, only four Grand Prix were run without spectators in the stands, namely those in Emilia-Romagna, Portugal, Spain and Azerbaijan. For the Spanish race, however, the stands saw the presence of 1.000 employees of the circuit.
For Pirelli, the Grand Prix is the last race in which 13-inch tyres will be used. From 2022, 18-inch tyres will be used. To celebrate the last use, all the slick tyres used in this final round of the season bear the words Next year I turn 18 inches on the sidewall. The new tyres were originally due to be used from this season as part of a package of new technical rules, but the switch was postponed until 2022 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The 13-inch tyres were first used in the 1981 San Marino Grand Prix.
Red Bull Racing was due to run its last race powered by Honda after returning in the 2015 season, when it supplied powertrains to McLaren. As a result, both Red Bull and AlphaTauri would either have to find a new supplier or develop their own engines from next season. However, Red Bull Racing subsequently announced that it would be able to be independent in terms of power unit development after signing an agreement with Honda to use the Japanese company's powertrain technology from 2022. The new division has been named Red Bull Power Train Limited, and the Anglo-Austrian team will continue to race with Honda engines, including supplying them to AlphaTauri.
Ahead of the Austrian Grand Prix, the supplier announces that it will continue to assemble power units in Sakura in 2022 before moving the engine hub to Milton Keynes. From 2023 onwards, Red Bull Power Train will assume responsibility for all engine production and maintenance. Before the US Grand Prix, Masashi Yamamoto, head of the Japanese company, announced that Red Bull Racing would be able to use the intellectual property until 2025. From the following year, the Milton Keynes-based team will have to do everything on its own regarding the assembly of power units. With the Honda engine, the Austrian team has won fifteen Grands Prix and taken 40 podium places.
The Grand Prix will be the last race in Formula One for Alfa Romeo Racing's Finnish driver, Kimi Räikkönen. On the eve of the return to the Dutch Grand Prix calendar, Räikkönen had announced his retirement at the end of the season. The Finnish driver made his debut in Formula 1 in 2001 driving for the former Sauber team. From 2002 to 2006 he raced for McLaren, before moving to Ferrari from 2007 to 2009. After a two-year absence, he drove for the former Lotus team from 2012 to 2013. Raikkonen returned to Ferrari in 2014, with whom he remained until the 2018 championship, before joining his current stable. During his career, he has contested 349 Grands Prix (an all-time record), winning 21 of them and taking the drivers' championship in the 2007 season with the Maranello team, as well as setting 103 podiums, 18 pole positions and 46 fastest laps in 19 seasons (another record). Räikkönen was replaced in the following season by Valtteri Bottas.
Finnish Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas races his last race with the German team. Before the Italian Grand Prix, Bottas signed a multi-year agreement with Alfa Romeo Racing from the next season, replacing the other Finnish driver Kimi Räikkönen. With the Anglo-German team, Bottas has won ten Grands Prix, 56 podiums, 17 pole positions, 16 fastest laps and 1 512 points, finishing second in the 2019 and 2020 seasons. In this race, Bottas, paired with Mercedes' other starting driver from the 2017 season, Britain's Lewis Hamilton, accumulate exactly one hundred races as teammates, behind only the Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello duo with Ferrari, at one hundred and four Grands Prix, established from the 2000 to 2005 seasons. Bottas is replaced by George Russell.
Williams' British driver George Russell will be competing in his last race with the Grove-based team after announcing on the eve of the Italian Grand Prix that he would be joining Mercedes to replace Valtteri Bottas. With the British team, Russell drove 58 Grands Prix, scoring one podium, 16 points and setting the best result in the Belgian Grand Prix with second place. He also took part in the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix at the wheel of the Mercedes, replacing Hamilton, where he scored 3 points. Russell's place will be taken by Alexander Albon, the current reserve driver for Red Bull Racing and AlphaTauri, who returns as a regular driver a season after driving for the Milton Keynes team. Aston Martin's Canadian driver, Lance Stroll, will be competing in his 100th Grand Prix.
Alfa Romeo Racing's second driver, Italian Antonio Giovinazzi, will contest his final race in the top category after announcing before the Qatar Grand Prix that he will enter Formula E with Dragon Racing alongside Brazilian Sérgio Sette Câmara in 2022. Giovinazzi, who made his Formula 1 debut in the 2017 Australian Grand Prix, has contested 61 Grands Prix and scored 21 points. His best result was fifth place in the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix. He will be replaced by Chinese Formula 2 driver Zhou Guanyu, making his debut in the top category. Zhou chooses the number 24. McLaren takes part in the Grand Prix with a special livery. The colour innovation is linked to a commercial initiative by the British team and sponsor British American Tobacco, with the intention of promoting the electronic cigarette brand Vuse.
Mercedes, after signing an agreement with Kingspan in the previous new Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, a company known in the construction industry and a world leader in products and services related to environmental sustainability and its issues, will break off the relationship on Wednesday 8th of December 2021 following some controversy raised in Britain. From this race onwards, the logo will not appear on the two cars. Two days later, on Friday 10 December 2021, Alpine announced the renewal of its partnership with Eurodatacar, a company specialising in insurance and car security against car theft, until 2024. The partnership began in 2016 when the Renault group re-entered the Formula 1 World Championship.
The day before the start of the weekend of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Thursday December 9th 2021, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile sends the teams an information note on the eve of the race. The Race Director, Michael Masi, reminds the teams that in the event of unsportsmanlike behaviour on the part of a driver, one of the penalties available to the stewards is a deduction of the points already earned in the championship standings. Finally, former Formula 1 driver Derek Warwick was appointed assistant race commissioner. The Briton has already performed this function in the past, most recently at the Belgian Grand Prix. For this Grand Prix, like the previous one, British car manufacturer Aston Martin provided the safety car and the medical car.
Friday the 10th of December 2021, during the first free practice session, Max Verstappen is the fastest with a time of 1'25"009, a result obtained also thanks to an important exploitation of the slipstream in the first of the two straights. Lewis Hamilton, on the other hand, did not go further than third, 0.3 seconds behind his rival after seeing his best time - 0.033 seconds behind the Dutchman - cancelled for exceeding the limits of the track. Separating the two contenders is Valtteri Bottas, while in fourth position is Sergio Perez, preceding Yuki Tsunoda in fifth, who recorded a time of 1'25"378. Fernando Alonso followed, 0.6 seconds behind with a time of 1'26"625.
Pierre Gasly was 0.8 seconds off the pace in seventh and the Ferraris were in eighth and ninth, with Leclerc just 0.040 seconds behind his team-mate. Rounding out the top ten is Aston Martin driver Sebastian Vettel, just a few thousandths behind Carlos Sainz Jr, who in turn is ahead of Lando Norris in his MCL35, 1.114 seconds behind Max Verstappen. The two Alfa Romeos are in thirteenth and fourteenth position, with Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi respectively. Lance Stroll is 1.599 seconds behind the first, and is preceded by Daniel Ricciardo who recorded a time of 1'26"676. The Australian driver's lap was run on Medium tyre, unlike all the other drivers who used Soft tyre.
Next up was Jack Aitken, at the wheel of the Williams; the British driver replaced George Russell for this session. In eighteenth was Nicholas Latifi, who was 2.478 seconds down. Next up was Mick Schumacher, who was 2.689 seconds down on the leader and 0.6 seconds down on his team-mate Nikita Mazepin. At the end of practice, the Mercedes team admits to having struggled in some corners, in fact during FP2 the team focused on a better balance, being quite competitive in the first sector. From the first to the fourth corner Lewis Hamilton is 3-4 km/h faster than Max Verstappen, accumulating an advantage of 0.2 seconds in the first part of the track.
Max Verstappen seems to be faster into Turn 5. On the two straights, it's the power units that make the difference. Max is more aggressive in the chicane between the two straights, and although Mercedes seems to have plenty of power, the Honda engine of the Red Bull seems to be able to respond to the power of the Anglo-German power unit. Mercedes seems to be favoured by fast corners, while Red Bull finds its strong point in direction changes and slow corners. But if in the first free practice session it was the Dutchman who had the better of things, in the second it was the British driver who set the best time. Hamilton's accuracy in not hindering any driver during practice, to avoid a reprimand that could cause him a disqualification, does not stop him: in fact, the British driver records a time of 1'23"691.
Max Verstappen, in his RB16, is 0.6 seconds behind the seven-time World Champion in fourth position. Unexpectedly in second position follows French driver Estaban Ocon who, in his Alpine, records a time of 1'24"034, just 0.3 seconds behind Lewis Hamilton. Valtteri Bottas was next, 0.392 seconds behind his team-mate and first in the FP2 standings. Fifth place went to Sergio Perez, with a time of 1'24"400, followed by Fernando Alonso who recorded a time of 1'24"495. The Alpine proves to be competitive not only on the qualifying lap, but also on the long run. Yuki Tsunoda, after an excellent performance in the morning, drops to seventh position with a gap of 0.841 seconds from the first.
The Ferraris confirmed their morning positions with eighth place for Charles Leclerc, 0.866 seconds off the pace, and ninth for Carlos Sainz Jr., 1.153 seconds down. Rounding out the top ten is Pierre Gasly, with a time of 1'24"940. Daniel Ricciardo recovered a few positions to eleventh, unlike his teammate - Lando Norris - who found himself in thirteenth position. Italian driver Antonio Giovinazzi recorded a time of 1'25"108, while his teammate, Kimi Raikkonen, did not go beyond sixteenth position due to a violent impact on the wall at the exit of the hotel, which resulted in the neutralization of the session by the exposure of the red flag.
The two Aston Martin drivers are in fourteenth and fifteenth position, respectively with Sebastian Vettel recording a time of 1'25"195, against Lance Stroll's 1'25"385. Closing the group are the two Williams, followed by the Haas drivers. The concern of an accident between the two main challengers, which has been talked about and continues to be talked about during Friday's practice, is put on the back burner by Mario Isola. The head of Pirelli's motorsport department is thinking about the overly aggressive pyramid-shaped kerbs, which can cause tyre punctures given the load generated by the cars and the speed at which they pass over them.
"I am not at all calm. Those kerbs are aggressive coming out of Turns 5 and 9. These points put an abnormal load on the tyre. A kerb made in this way stresses the construction in a strange way, especially if the rider jumps over it. In that case he has to overcome this 7.5 centimeter barrier. Which is blunt, yes, but a car develops very high loads on the tyre. If you load a tyre with 1000 kilos on one point, you're not doing it any good. You may need to increase the pressure: it helps the tyre and decreases the deformation, but it's not a solution to the problem. I understand that these kerbs are there to help with track limits but we're not solving it by putting kerbs on them. We can't afford for a World Championship to be decided by a problem because of kerbs. The concern is shared not only by Mercedes and Red Bull, who are also worried about damaging the bottom of the car or the wings".
Immediately after the conclusion of the second free practice session, Max Verstappen's RB16 and Lewis Hamilton's W12 were put through their paces, especially at the front of the car. This is also due to previous reports from both teams. The feelings within the two teams, having completed FP2, seem to be very different. For example, Lewis Hamilton is more optimistic than his rival.
"It went quite well, it was a decent day, the track is much more enjoyable and smoother after the recent changes we are close to our rivals, there is still a question mark in terms of pace, the car is not going badly, in FP1 it got worse, in FP2 we started better, we will analyse the data to see how to improve. Does the track make overtaking easier? I tried to follow Perez, but it wasn't easy at all. Compared to the past, maybe it will be a bit less complicated, but if two cars have a similar pace overtaking will be complicated".
While his team-mate, Valtteri Bottas, expressed his desire to end his time at Mercedes in the best possible way:
"It was nice to lap on the modified layout, the track is better than before, it has more flow and there are more overtaking opportunities. Today I went off the line and there was a lot of dirt, I paid for it in the next corner where I risked making a big crash. We changed the car a bit between the two sessions and the second version felt like a step forward, I have to say I felt comfortable with the FP2 car. However, none of today's laps were amazing, there is still something to improve in terms of time. We had a good long run on the medium tyre and the car was pretty consistent. We will do some important work overnight so that we are ready for tomorrow".
On the subject of the possible replacement of Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes power unit ahead of Sunday's race, Andrew Shovlin, head of Mercedes track engineers, denied this hypothesis at the end of practice.
"The track was 7-8 degrees warmer than the qualifying temperatures, but I don't think this scenario will be too different in qualifying. The gaps seem quite narrow and there are a couple of corners where we are struggling a bit. Turn 5 will be better than in the past because it will allow better overtaking opportunities, being able to follow the car in front more closely, and it's one of the sections where we've had problems because we haven't found a good balance yet. We'll talk to Lewis and Valtteri to see what we can do. The race pace felt okay, but there are areas where we will need to find solutions. The rocket engine is not as they are making it out to be, it's a step in the right direction. But as we saw in the last race, it wasn't enough to cover the difference on the qualifying lap from Max. A new power unit for Lewis Hamilton is not in our plans, we will only fit it in case of a big problem. But even in such a case, replacement would not be plan A. We met with all the mechanics before the race and Toto Wolff was more relaxed than we thought. We know that we will also need luck, but we have the right driver and the right car to be able to seize it".
At Red Bull, on the other hand, there is a more tense atmosphere, caused by the fact that they have not yet found the ideal set-up. In this regard, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner admits:
"We still have 23 hours to find a better set-up and more pace. The long run looked pretty good, but we just need to readjust it for the shorter ones. The Mercedes looks pretty competitive here. It certainly is in the first and second sectors, while we are more so in the third. Now we have a lot of data that will allow us to refine some areas during the night. So, it's going to be a long night both here and at Milton Keynes, with whom we will work to improve the car. With the change in circuit layout I think tyre wear will be a big factor; the long left-hand corner, for example, puts a lot of strain on the tyres. From this point of view, it's a very demanding track at fifty percent of the mileage, and it will be interesting to see which strategy will prevail. The engine has given positive signs in terms of performance, although we need to make progress on the dry lap; we'll do our best to qualify as high as possible and then work our way up in the race. First of all, I repeat, we will need to complete a good qualifying".
Asked about the focus on the 2021 World Championship, to the possible detriment of the next one, in which some opponents could benefit from focusing more on the design of the new cars, Christian Horner replied:
"Morale is very good, we are enthusiastic. Who would have thought we would be in this position? We pushed ourselves to the limit and that's how we forced our rivals to file everything down to stay ahead of us. We are enormously proud of our team and of Verstappen, who is only 24 years old but has been able to handle all this great pressure. This was an intense battle and it will be the same next year. Have we spent too much energy this year? Well, in case Ferrari humiliates us in the first race of 2022, then yes, maybe we focused too much on 2021. It can happen, who knows. In any case, in a few months we'll know who's on the right track".
And talking about his rivals, Christian Horner gives an interesting personal analysis:
"Mercedes has more people in the marketing department than mechanics in their garage. Throughout this world championship Max has paid for some tough decisions to his detriment, while other drivers have got away with it, and I think Lewis would say the same if the roles were reversed. In some incidents, the spotlight has gone on Max and his driving style. The overall weight of my team pales in comparison to Mercedes, one of the biggest car companies in the world. The power it wields with the world's media is enormous. Hamilton himself said in 2011 that we're just a drinks company racing in Grand Prix races. I don't think it's particularly nice for them to be beaten by an energy drink manufacturer, they've made that quite clear to us. We have a phenomenal driver who has driven with his heart this year. He's been intense on and off the track. And I think even calling him Mad Max is part of a very clear narrative. Hamilton himself is a seven-time World Champion, he's the most successful driver of all time, he has a clear position within Formula 1. What he says is heard by millions of people and I think he has used every tool at his disposal to put weight on Max this year. I think a huge amount of pressure has been put on Max's shoulders, fuelled by the Mercedes media machine".
Red Bull's star driver Max Verstappen, on the other hand, seems more relaxed than his team principal:
"I think the changes have made the circuit better. In general, the fast corners are more fun than in the past, especially the last sector. So there are positive aspects. As for us, we are still learning and understanding some things, but obviously on the dry lap it didn't go according to plan: we lacked a bit of speed. However, our race pace was a little more competitive".
That, on the other hand, is what Sergio Perez thought about the first tests:
"I don't know how much the changes have actually improved the track, it remains fun to race here, but I'm not so sure they have increased the chances of overtaking. We have a lot of work to do after today's sessions. We went out on track with very different set-ups, now it's a matter of taking the best of both versions and combining them as much as possible. The third free practice session will be very important, in Qualifying we have to be competitive".
Honda Technical Director Toyoharu Tanabe commented on the outcome of the day and promised a battle ahead of the race:
"Today's times are already over ten seconds faster than last year's pole, so it's clearly a very fast track. All four cars - Red Bull and AlphaTauri - had a quiet day. As usual, we will now try to improve our performance further after studying the data. I don't expect an easy weekend, but there are only two days left until the end of the season. We will do everything we can, right to the end, to make sure that our battle ends with the championship victory".
Not entirely satisfied, however, are the two Ferrari drivers. Charles Leclerc, after a good job in the race pace simulation, would like to have more qualifying lap speed:
"I like the new track configuration and it is fun to drive. The changes seem to have made it easier to follow the cars in front and so I feel I can say that the changes are going in the right direction. The evolution of the track was noticeable throughout the day, especially with the temperatures dropping as the evening wore on, and this helped us find more grip. The tyre wear is quite high but I think our car is behaving well on this circuit. In terms of pace, we did a good job in race simulation, but I think we still need to improve a bit in qualifying. We are still missing something here compared to some of our direct rivals. I hope we can put it all together to do well for tomorrow".
Speaking of the future, Charles Leclerc makes no secret of his desire to be in the group of drivers who - hopefully - will be able to battle it out to win the 2022 World Championship at Yas Marina.
"I hope to be one of the six in the battle for the title. So many cars fighting for the world championship, with me in front by a little bit of a margin. It would be the perfect situation. To have several teams involved in the contention would be fantastic and I hope Ferrari can be part of it. Considering all the bad luck we had in Budapest and Monte-Carlo, where we lost significant points, I feel this has been a good season. Especially in the race, I worked very hard last year and this year I sacrificed qualifying a little bit to put more focus on race day. I think we found a good balance. Sometimes on Saturday I overdid it, but on Sunday I had very good races. Overall I am improving as a rider. Fifth place was the best we could do, it's up to us to get the job done. With fifth in the drivers' standings and third in the constructors' we can call it a positive season, which makes me confident that we can do a good job and come back to victory next year".
Carlos Sainz Jr. is finding it more difficult to get to grips with the track:
"Today's day in Abu Dhabi was a challenging one. The modified layout of the track and the new asphalt made driving here very different to previous years. It was very difficult because right from the first free practice I didn't feel comfortable with the car and I was chasing the right balance all day. This is quite unusual because usually we are always able to start the weekend on the right foot and instead today I know we have a lot of work to do ahead of tomorrow. We will be analysing the data with the engineers to see where we can improve the car and consequently our performance ahead of qualifying".
McLaren's weekend doesn't seem to be getting off to the best of starts, given the positions obtained outside the top ten. However, the optimism and determination of the two drivers is not lacking. Lando Norris seems highly motivated to snatch fifth position in the standings from Charles Leclerc:
"It was a good Friday in which I think we learned a lot. Maybe we weren't fast, but I had a good feeling with the car, so I hope I can find a higher pace from tomorrow. Overall, I think it was a positive day. It was also nice to drive on the new circuit. There are quite a few differences not only in the layout, but also in how the tyres behave. It's another thing that you'll have to get used to, and we'll make sure that our guys and gals focus on maximising everything, from the tyres to the set-up, for qualifying tomorrow".
The confidence of Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo was not long in coming, commenting:
"Today was fun learning a new layout, and some of the corners I enjoyed. We made some progress in the second session, but we still need to improve. Overall, the day was positive, so we'll get to work on optimising our pace for Saturday".
The two Alpine drivers are on the same wavelength of thought. Alpine's excellent presentation encourages Esteban Ocon to improve further: his target is Q3:
"Some of the areas of the track with the new asphalt are interesting and it will be important to see how the tyres behave. So far, we have both cars in the top ten, which is good. That's the goal for tomorrow. It's always nice to be in the top positions and we finished in second place today, which sounds very good. Let's remain realistic, though, and keep working hard".
While Fernando Alonso confesses that there is still work to be done, although he remains satisfied with the job done:
"It was a good Friday for us and I liked the track changes. It's the third consecutive weekend we've discovered a new circuit on Friday, which means we can play around a bit and try different lines to find a lap time. We optimised our track time today in both sessions, and my fastest time was cleared in FP2, so we have potential to exploit. We still need to tweak some things on the set-up, I think it was a good day for us but we can have more fun tomorrow".
Yuki Tsunoda seems rather more satisfied with his performance than his team-mate. Pierre Gasly, in fact, despite finishing in the top-10, seems to be uncomfortable with the new layout:
"The layout is really different it feels like a new track with a lot more high-speed corners, so it's really nice. We tried a few different things with the car today, but I didn't feel that good yet, so we have some work to do for tomorrow".
While the Japanese driver admits:
"I already drove here for the Young Driver Test last year. Of course, knowing the track in advance always helps my approach to the weekend, which has not always been the case this season. I really like the new layout of this circuit, we still have a few things to work on, but I think the pace so far is pretty good. We have taken a lot of data from the two cars, so we are in a good position to continue to improve tomorrow. My goal is to get to Q3 in qualifying again, as we look pretty strong here. Our race pace also looks good, so we just need to put that into practice when it counts".
The four-time World Champion seems to have definitely appreciated the changes made to the track, especially the work done at Turn 9:
"We are still learning the circuit, but the first impression was definitely positive. The aim now is to get as much out of the car as possible and finish well in qualifying this year. As for the track, it's a good challenge. It's faster and more fun to drive on it. Some of the uglier corners have been replaced with much nicer ones, especially the ninth, which is on a slope".
While his teammate, Lance Stroll, comments:
"We've learned a lot in these two sessions, now it's about re-reading the data and trying to extract extra performance ahead of qualifying. It was good to experience the new layout of the Yas Marina circuit. It is definitely faster and has more flow, which makes it better. We were able to complete our programme today and get some good laps in, so let's see how it goes in qualifying".
During FP1 George Russell made way for reserve driver Jack Aitken, before starting FP2 in preparation for Saturday's qualifying:
"It was interesting to try the changes to the circuit, and I have to say I liked them. The track is now faster and smoother, as well as being more enjoyable to drive. Ultimately, though, it all comes down to lap times. I was a bit off the pace today, but I still felt my laps were pretty decent. We've got a bit of work to do to close the gap to the Alfa Romeo and the mid-table cars ahead of us tonight, but I think there's more opportunity for me to improve my pace, which is natural to look for over the weekend. The aim is to qualify well tomorrow; we'll work hard tonight to do that and finish the season on a high".
Less comfortable seems to be Nicholas Latifi, who admits:
"It's nice to be back at the Yas Marina circuit, I think the updated track suits the characteristics of our car better; it's definitely more fun to drive and it's smoother. I think it will also help us in the race, so hopefully we'll be able to take advantage of it on Sunday. I had a crash at Turn 13 in FP2, and damaged the end plates of the rear wing, but the guys and girls in the garage did a great job to get me back on track and able to continue the session. I was struggling a bit with the balance of the car in FP1; we made some small changes in FP2 that helped, but there was an issue with a rear shock absorber that we weren't able to fix during the session. We'll fix that tonight and continue to work on the data to put us in a better position for qualifying".
It is undoubtedly an important weekend for Antonio Giovinazzi, who is facing his last Grand Prix of the season before leaving - hopefully momentarily - Formula One, unlike Kimi Raikkonen.
"Today was a bit more difficult than in Jeddah, but it wasn't a bad day: there was an improvement from FP2 to FP1, we are not far from the top ten and let's see what we can do tomorrow. I think Kimi deserved the helmet, I've never had any problems with him. He is always fair, humble and sincere towards me. In 2007 I was on the sofa with my dad watching the race and that helmet has stuck with me, I couldn't wait to put it on".
Kimi Raikkonen himself was involved in an accident.
"It's always good to make changes, but the corner angle should have been slower, because at high speeds it's difficult to overtake. Sometimes you wonder what they are thinking when they make these changes, but it is what it is now, and it is different. In Turn 9 there are still good overtaking opportunities. In the accident I just lost the rear in a place where there was no way out, and I went into the wall: these things happen. It was interesting to test the track after the changes. It was a normal Friday until the last lap: we tried various things, analysing how they work, as we always do: we had finished most of our work when I had my accident".
In both sessions, the Haas of Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin occupied the last positions in the classification. Nevertheless, the German driver is not unhappy with the work done and the new layout of the circuit.
"Overall, it went well. I got to learn the new track, which is a bit different from before, but in general not much has changed. It has the same philosophy in terms of the approach to some of the corners, although obviously the corner itself is very different. It's at night, we have all the lights on, so it's different and I like driving here. There are different trajectories you can take, especially in Turn 9, so I think there will be variations during the race, with overtaking should become easier. I think we are closer than we were at the start of the year with the teams ahead of us".
Nikita Mazepin also dwells more on the characteristics of the track than on the outcome of the two tests.
"I like Abu Dhabi, as well as this track which, of course, has a slightly modified layout over the course of this season. It was interesting to do a few laps and everything went smoothly, with no problems, just working on the set-up like a normal Friday at a new circuit. I loved Abu Dhabi the way it was: it had 21 corners, from what I remember, and now it has 16. So it's a slightly shorter track that I like, and I think it's a good track".
On the eve of the last qualifying of the year, Race Director Michael Masi made a few statements trying to clarify his personal position, that of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, and that of the stewards called to rule on possible controversial situations over the weekend.
"There is a clear idea of what is right and what is wrong. It's not my decision whether you end up in the stewards' room. It's all in the hands of Lewis and Max. I haven't spoken privately to the two of them, but we had the usual drivers' briefing and everyone was aligned to that. I don't think it's an unnecessarily strange scenario. It's one of the possible sanctions set out in the sporting regulations. Stewards have a wide range of penalties that can be imposed. We have to take this for what it is, considering it's a viable route: a kind of reminder for everyone".
Statements to which Max Verstappen was not slow to respond.
"If we look at certain decisions, I don't feel they are in my favour at all. In the last race I was punished, while others were not even called by the stewards in similar situations. Why are there suddenly different rules for me? In retrospect the Baku incident was very painful. While in Hungary I was thrown out by Hamilton's teammate, at Silverstone by himself. And there I lost a lot of points. In England he received a ten-second penalty, but was able to win the race. Now the FIA seems to be alarmed about a possible accident, so much so that they say a driver can have a points deduction. I find that ridiculous. Now it is and before it wasn't, even though it came at me on purpose. All this fuss about equal points doesn't interest me, I should have been champion by now. Let me just say that I am not at all happy with the decisions that have been made. I try not to read too much into it, but I approach this Grand Prix like any other race. Everyone knows that I will do my best and that I always go to the limit".
After accepting the words of Pirelli Motorsport Director, Mario Isola, overnight in Abu Dhabi, the Grand Prix organisers intervene on the kerbs to modify them. At the exit of Turn-5 and Turn-9, the kerbs were rounded and bevelled by 7.5 centimetres. Thus, on Saturday the 11th of December 2021, FP3 can be held regularly. The Mercedes team, after appearing the day before with the rear wing supported by a single pylon, a configuration used for faster tracks, makes several changes to the set-up of Lewis Hamilton's W12. Red Bull, on the other hand, comes in with a much lighter rear wing than on Friday.
Leading the FP3 times is Lewis Hamilton, who records a time of 1'23"274. The British driver, however, is not living a happy moment, since during the session he unintentionally obstructed Nikita Mazpein at the exit of the pits. In case of impiding by the commissioners could arrive the third reprimand for the driver, which could lead to a penalty of ten positions to be served on the grid. He is followed by Mercedes driver Max Verstappen in the standings, with a gap of 0.214 seconds. For the Dutch driver it was not an easy session. Subject to several rear wing changes, Verstappen is not particularly happy with the performance of the flap fitted to his car on this track.
Valtteri Bottas took third place in the final FP3 standings, 0.751 seconds behind his team-mate. He is followed by Sergio Perez, 0.022 seconds behind the Finnish driver. Fifth position went to Lando Norris, author of a time of 1'24"106, followed by the two Scuderia AlphaTauri drivers. Tsunoda overtook his teammate in sixth place with a time of 1'24"223, while Pierre Gasly posted a time of 1'24"251. As the classification unfolds, the gap to the leader increases: Carlos Sainz Jr. posted a time of 1'24"595, followed by Daniel Ricciardo, with a time of 1'24"733, and Charles Leclerc, with a time of 1'24"758. All three drivers set their respective times on Medium tyres, unlike the top seven who set their times on Soft tyres. Out of the top ten is Lance Stroll, who posted a time of 1'24"821 on Soft tyres.
The Alpine cars, after an excellent Friday, are in twelfth and fifteenth position with Esteban Ocon recording a time of 1'24"834, and Fernando Alonso with a time of 1'25"094, both marked on Medium tyres. In contrast to the Alfa Romeo of Kimi Raikkonen, which is positioned just after the French driver's Alpine with a time of 1'24"037, marked on Soft tyres, while Antonio Giovinazzi records a time of 1'25"048. Sebastian Vettel is 0.3 seconds behind his team-mate with a time of 1'25"115. The two Williams and the two Haas closed the classification. At the end of practice there is no investigation for Hamilton, concerning what happened during FP3; the British driver, therefore, will not be penalized in any way. With less than half an hour to go before the start of qualifying, there are still many discussions within the Red Bull garage about which configuration to use on Max Verstappen's car.
With FP3 over, a few hours later the last qualifying of the 2021 World Championship begins, which will determine the grid positions for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The first cars to take to the track are the two Red Bulls. Verstappen immediately set a time of 1'23"680, followed by Gasly, Tsunoda and Perez. A little later, however, Lewis Hamilton moved into first position, beating his rival by 0.4 seconds. Valtteri Bottas was right behind his team-mate, while Lando Norris and Fernando Alonso took fourth and fifth respectively. The only ones to mount the Medium tyre are the two Ferrari drivers, Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr.
In the middle stages of Q1, Max Verstappen climbed up the rankings to 0.056 thousandths of a second behind Lewis Hamilton. Shortly afterwards, Mick Schumacher knocked over a pin at the entrance to the last corner, and the session was momentarily interrupted. Once the track clearing operation is over, six minutes from the end of Q1l and two Ferraris enter the track on Soft tyres. Charles Leclerc took sixth place, while Carlos Sainz Jr. was ninth. Max Verstappen decides to stay in the pits, unlike his challenger who takes to the track and records a time of 1'22"845. At the end of Q1, the excluded are Nicholas Latifi, George Russell, Kimi Raikkonen, Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin.
Q2 gets underway and Mercedes, Red Bull and AlphaTauti take to the track on Medium. The British driver immediately records a time of 1'23"185, while his rival follows at 0.004 seconds. Yuki Tsunoda set an excellent time to finish fourth, followed by Lando Norris and Sergio Perez. These, however, were overtaken by Carlos Sainz Jr. who managed to get into first position, unlike Max Versteppen who suffered a flat spot on a tyre during the second lap, with the Medium set of tyres. The last few seconds and therefore the last attempts begin. Sergio Perez set a time of 1'23"135 on Soft tyres, while his teammate, on the same compound, recorded a time of 1'22"800. The different strategies between the two drivers are beginning to emerge.
The two Red Bulls will start the race on Soft tyres, while Lewis Hamilton will start on Medium. Q2 ends with Fernando Alonso, Pierre Gasly, Lance Stroll, Antonio Giovanizzi and Sebastian Vettel out of Q3. Some of these, like Sebastian Vettel, didn't make it into Q3 because a line of slow cars was created on the launch lap, within which some competitors didn't respect the gentlemen agreement and decided to overtake their rivals, creating havoc and further slowing down those who did. Not surprisingly, Sebastian Vettel opens the radio link, and exclaims:
"It happens like this every fucking time, it's unbelievable".
A few minutes' break are interspersed with the green light in the pit lane. The RB16Bs of Sergio Perez and Max Verstappen take to the track immediately. The Dutchman, taking advantage of the slipstream granted by his teammate, records an impressive time of 1'22"109. Lewis Hamilton is 0.551 seconds behind. Next up were Sergio Perez, Yuki Tsunoda, who saw his time erased and dropped to tenth, Valtteri Bottas, Carlos Sainz Jr. Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris, Esteban Ocon and Daniel Ricciardo.
With a few moments to go, Lewis Hamilton had one last chance to take pole position. Once again all the drivers take to the track; the tension is high. On the launch lap, Lewis Hamilton is in front of Valtteri Bottas. The Briton runs his lap without taking advantage of his teammate's slipstream. On his final attempt, Charles Leclerc made a mistake on the last section of the circuit, undoing the good work done in the first two sectors. The Ferrari driver, having completed his final attempt, opens the radio contact and exclaims:
"Fuck. We degrade too much towards the end of the lap".
His track engineer, Xavier Marcos Padros, replies:
"You were half a tenth faster than Sainz in sector one. A tenth and a half faster in sector two and then we lost in sector three. It was in turns 13 and 14".
So, finally, the Monegasque lets loose a colourful exclamation to say the least:
"I fucking know. With this fucking pressure I suffered a lot in the last sector. I thought I could push a bit more, but then everything started to slip in the last sector. How much did I lose in the last sector?"
Leclerc asks. Xavier Marcos Padros, replies:
"Three tenths in the last sector".
Max Verstappen set the fastest time of 1'22"480 to take pole position, his tenth this season, while the reigning World Champion was second, 0.371 seconds down. The last qualifying session of the 2021 season thus ends, with an incredible third place for Lando Norris, thanks to a time of 1'22"931, who will start on Soft tyres, followed by Sergio Perez, just a few thousandths of a second behind. Third row for Carlos Sainz Jr. and Valtteri Bottas, who set respectively 1'22"992 and 1'23"036. Next up was Charles Leclerc, with a time of 1'23"136, and Yuki Tsunoda, who set a time of 1'23"220. The top ten is completed by Esteban Ocon, with a time of 1'23"389, and Daniel Ricciardo, 1'23"409. Max Verstappen can only be satisfied with this excellent result, achieved thanks to a magnificent team effort:
"Obviously it feels fantastic. We definitely improved the car in qualifying. Because this weekend we had some ups and downs. I'm incredibly happy, it's what we wanted. But it's never easy, considering how strong they have been in the last few races. But now I'm looking forward to tomorrow, because it's the most important day. Strategy? I felt good with both compounds. it's a bit cooler in the evening, so it should be easier on the soft tyres. We'll see tomorrow. It will be very important to get a good start. After that we will try to do our race trying to do our best. And we'll see what the final result is. Weight removed? Of course, I am relieved. I always do my best and the team always gives me the best possible car and that's what we do all year round. Today everything worked perfectly".
But not everything is going according to plan for the Red Bull team. Due to a flat-spot on the car's tyre, the Dutchman was forced to start on Soft rubber and not the Medium compound as they had intended. Despite the change of plan, the atmosphere inside the Red Bull box seems quite calm:
"Flat-spot? The plan was to start on Medium. We had planned to run on the softs at the end and then decide whether or not to abort the lap, but then there was the flat-spot on the mediums and I had to go on the softs. I wasn't too worried because I did a good race simulation on the Softs too, so I expect it to go well tomorrow. Pole position? It's always important to be first, but especially at this stage of the championship. You always want to be in front".
Finally, the Dutch driver says that the slipstream granted by Sergio Perez was not crucial to get pole position.
"The slipstream issue was discussed before qualifying. It was very nice and well executed, but it was not [the reason] for whatever the gap was. I might have gained a tenth in the stretch going into Turn 9. It's not a very long straight. But in any case Checo is a great team-mate and it's a real pleasure to work with him. So I also give a big thank you to him".
This, despite the Mexican driver admitting that the strategy in Q3 was not only crucial, but also virtually unrepeatable.
"If we try again, we can't do it".
For Perez, there remains the regret of not securing third place on the grid, lost at the last corner of the second run:
"We knew we didn't stand a chance against the Mercedes so we took a risk with the strategy. I made a mistake in the last corner and lost the chance to start on the clean side of the track, but I am happy with the second row and with the soft tyre we can be more aggressive at the start. I hope to get a good start and take third tomorrow".
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was impressed by Max Verstappen's time, not so much for the first two sectors, which were favoured by Sergio Perez's slipstream, but for a third sector that he himself described as insane, also due to a more unloaded rear wing to try and resist the Mercedes ahead of the race:
"After Max's lock-up the tyres were not in the ideal condition, which forced us to fit Softs. Checo collaborated with his team-mate, giving him that slipstream which was absolutely perfect in terms of teamwork. We had discussed it this morning, and we lowered the downforce. It was the only way to match the Mercedes' power on the straights. After Q1, I was impressed with the times Lewis was setting, but then, in Q2, we got closer".
The British manager then goes on to say how important it was to decrease downforce:
"That was one of Max's best laps of the year in the next attempt we slowed him down and he still matched the time. The slipstream was worth a gain of a tenth or two, but not half a second. His last sector, with that downforce, was absolutely insane. Max is driving with his heart, and Checo was the mate who sacrificed an optimum lap on the softs to help him. Now we need to put that into practice tomorrow. As for the choice of tyres, I wasn't entirely convinced this morning. We're not worried about starting with the softs. The medium ones are stronger, but the degradation will be very interesting to see in the race and how it will perform, and it will be a crucial element. So all credit to him should go to Max. Lewis is very, very strong. This is one of the circuits where he expresses himself best".
Lewis Hamilton is not demoralised, but he is still satisfied with his second position and congratulates his challenger:
"First of all, Max did a great lap. We couldn't compete with the time he did at the end. But I went pretty fast during practice. I'm happy to see all the fans here and I thank them. We couldn't respond to Max's lap, it was fantastic. But we are in a good position. I want to think that our tyres are the best for tomorrow and that we can have a great race. In the first lap I lost a lot of time in turn 5, but the second one was totally clean. I couldn't go any faster. I don't know if I could have prepared the tyres better, but in any case I couldn't beat that time. He fully deserved pole".
The seven-time World Champion, however, doesn't believe that crossing the line on Soft tyres in Q2 was born of a mistake, but rather a strategy with a clear objective: to focus everything on the start.
"Whether having Medium tyres at the start will be the key? Who knows. I can't really say, because I don't know either. I will give everything I have with the material I have available. I think they chose the soft tyres on purpose, because obviously for them the start is the key point. They've probably decided to go for that. But I hope our choice is the right one and that we can make it work tomorrow".
But every cloud has a silver lining. During the FP2 held on Friday 10th of December 2021, it could be seen that the Soft tyre - although degrading earlier - still has a similar pace to the Medium tyre. Not entirely satisfied is Mercedes' Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas, who only managed sixth place. Hamilton will therefore not have the help of his teammate in the fight against Verstappen, unlike the latter who can almost certainly count on the help of his teammate. Valtteri Bottas put it this way after qualifying:
"I was definitely hoping for a better result. I knew that we had changed the engine to an older one, so it would have been complicated: there is a deficit of a few tenths, and in terms of set-up I focused a lot on the race. It wasn't a perfect set-up for qualifying, so we'll see if it works tomorrow. Medium tyre at the start? It opens up more opportunities and opens up different strategies. We can go longer in the first stint if we want to, whereas with the soft compound you can't do that because it degrades much faster. It can be an advantage for how the race will go. It will certainly be interesting because we will have different tyres from Red Bull. Wakes? We've never planned this strategy because normally it's more likely to go wrong. For Red Bull it worked today but normally we didn't do it because it can compromise the other driver".
The first to have a good view of the duel between these two drivers is Lando Norris who will stay on his own without getting involved:
"The first lap in Q3 went well even if I made a few mistakes, in the second one I honestly don't know how I managed to pull off this performance, even if I must have done something wrong as I am not on pole. Will I be able to enjoy the battle for the championship? I'm a bit nervous, I'll keep my head down, I'll watch what they do in the first few laps or even throughout the race, I don't want to get too involved because it could cause a serious controversy. I'll do my best, if there's an opportunity I'll try to take it".
Daniel Ricciardo does not have the same privilege as his teammate, finding himself in tenth position. The fifth row obtained by the Australian driver is however useful in the challenge with Ferrari:
"It was a difficult session. The tyres were my biggest problem, as I wasn't able to improve my pace. I have to try to understand if there is something I can do to put the tyre in the right window. It's up to me to try and understand that. If not, we will try to find the right strategy based on tomorrow's position. I hope there can be some episodes that allow us to make the most of it. Lando was strong, I'm really happy for him. Obviously we would like to be higher up with him, but I couldn't do it today".
Very confident instead is Carlos Sainz Jr. who does not hide his happiness for his fifth place, after overtaking his teammate and the Mercedes of 77:
"I am happy, of course, especially after Jeddah where I was very disappointed with the elimination in Q2. I was going very fast there and I was too aggressive in Q2 when I shouldn't have been. Today I dosed myself better and set a fast lap when it counted, which was in Q3. I had a good lap. Not perfect, but pretty clean. I've always seen myself as capable. When I was partnered with Norris, who I know is very good in qualifying. I was always right there with him. I knew I could be at that level: maybe people didn't expect it, but I always had confidence in myself. Especially these 6-7 races I went very strong in qualifying and I used the potential of the car to the maximum. We were closer to the top teams than I expected, especially seeing Perez and Bottas. Norris had to do a great lap, while I personally just lacked a bit of tyre management. In Q2 I felt that if I pushed hard in the first two sectors I would struggle in the third. In Q3 I was able to control myself more in the first and second and give more in the third. I did 22.9, which for me was more or less the limit of the car. I'm happy that I had the calmness to react to that and put in a good lap at the end. Today we were closer to the pace we wanted. Staying calm at the start is difficult, tomorrow is the last race of the year and I want to finish well. I will definitely go on the attack. If I finish the year with a good race I would go on holiday very happy. I look at the classification, but I think for me to finish fifth something has to happen to Charles and Lando. And I don't want anything strange to happen to Charles, because we want third place in the Constructors. For me finishing fifth, sixth or seventh doesn't make much difference. For me already being in a fight with Norris and Leclerc, with them I've been with their respective cars for three years, is a very good thing".
Charles Leclerc, on the other hand, after expressing his anger over the radio, tries to analyse what went wrong in Q3:
"There was potential to do better today in Q3 in the first and in the second sector I was managing a very good lap. Probably, though, I pushed a bit too hard. As a result when I got to the last part of the track I didn't have any grip left: it's a shame, but that's how it went. It's a shame, but that's how it is. It won't be easy to come back tomorrow, but I'll try my best. We have a pretty strong race pace so I'm hoping for a good race in the last round of the season".
The Monegasque driver regretfully ends his last qualifying season in seventh place. Laurent Mekies, Scuderia Ferrari's sporting director, is of the same opinion as the Monegasque driver. The French engineer points out that the two Ferrari drivers could have done even better, but he remains equally satisfied with the whole day:
"A solid qualifying, especially for the level of performance we showed. Since the start of the season we have seen that, behind the two teams fighting at the top, there is a great balance and it takes very little to be in front or behind a group potentially made up of ten to twelve drivers. Carlos and Charles gave their all, they were in contention for the second row until the very end and their final placings are a good starting point for tomorrow's race. After two totally new tracks we have arrived at a circuit that has been significantly modified, making it much smoother, and I think the work done by the team over the weekend is once again demonstrating their ability to adapt quickly to the changes. Today we had a counter-intuitive approach to qualifying, which helped us to exploit our potential: tomorrow we'll try to translate this into a good result, useful for achieving the goals we are still pursuing. We want to end the season with a good race, trying to put a smile on the faces of our drivers, our colleagues who work hard every day, on the track and at Maranello, and all those who, all over the world, follow the Scuderia Ferrari with passion and affection".
Yuki Tsunoda, on the other hand, is very elated, not only qualifying in the top ten - in eighth - but also overtaking his team-mate Pierre Gasly:
"It's been a good weekend so far but of course I'm a bit frustrated, it's a shame I went over the track limits in Q3, because I think it was a good lap, especially without taking advantage of the slipstream of a car in front. I've really got my confidence back this weekend and it shows on track. I feel more comfortable since the first race in Bahrain, that's really positive. I'm very happy with my lap in Q2, which will allow me to start the race on medium tyres, in an advantageous position. It's definitely a good way to finish the season, now I just need to perfect the qualifying result tomorrow when it really counts".
During qualifying for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, many drivers complained about the traffic. As many as five drivers were summoned by the stewards for impeding. Sebastian Vettel was called in for both being impaired by Esteban Ocon, and for creating an impingement on Pierre Gasly. Fernando Alonso, who was slowed in his final attempt by Daniel Ricciardo, was also called by the stewards. The Spanish driver is not at all happy with the situation that has arisen in the last qualifying session:
"Everyone thinks about themselves because there are no rules, everyone thinks they can drive according to their convenience because there is a referee who doesn't give either yellow or red cards in football when there is a penalty foul the referee often shows the player a card as well, we need a stricter referee in Formula 1 to protect us drivers and right now there isn't one and it's a shame. At the beginning of the year I saw that Qualifying was a jungle and now I have adapted, avoiding being in the way thanks also to the wall that 'guides' me very well. However, I would like to have a few more rules on the speed to be maintained during the start and cool down laps".
Sebastian Vettel was also among the drivers affected by the delays in Q2, admitting at the end of qualifying:
"Today was not our day, mainly because of problems with traffic. I was blocked by Ocon in Q1, but in Q2 there were even more problems. Everyone was stopped towards the end of the lap and we saw some drivers jumping the queues. I had to stop and, as a result, I lost too much tyre temperature, which ruined my final fast lap. I should have been more selfish: the other drivers didn't respect the gentlemen's agreement. We will start from fifteenth position, I hope to overtake many cars tomorrow. Our race pace should be competitive".
While his teammate, Lance Stroll, comments:
"I think thirteenth position was the best we could have achieved today. We made some changes to the set-up of the car today and I'm happier with the balance, which is good for tomorrow. We will have a free choice of tyres for the start of the race, so there are opportunities to make up ground in the race. We should fight for points, it would be a nice way to celebrate my 100th race in Formula One".
Complicated qualifying for Williams, who failed to break through the Q1 wall. George Russell, in particular, seemed to be rather disappointed after finishing 16th:
"I felt the car very well on our dry laps and was really confident that we could advance to Q2. On our final launch lap, unfortunately, the tyres weren't ready yet, so we didn't improve our time, which was a shame. However, we will get the points tomorrow, and the most important thing is to secure eighth place in the constructors' championship. I think we can achieve that, but we know it's not over until it's over. We will do everything we can to finish ahead of Alfa Romeo".
His teammate, Nicholas Latifi, finished in seventeenth place and seems to think the same way:
"We were hoping for more today as I felt comfortable with the car. It's rare for any of us to make it to Q2; it's the minimum target, and to not achieve it is frustrating as a team. There are definitely things we could have improved; I could have lowered my time, and we suffered a bit with traffic before the last attempt. It's always a problem in Abu Dhabi when everyone is trying to get position in the final sector. It means you get to Turn 1 without really knowing how the car behaves when you touch the brake, I think we could have gained something in that sector. We'll see what we can do tomorrow, it's going to be a long race and the new layout should favour overtaking".
Kimi Raikkonen's last qualifying of his career ended in eighteenth position. A result not very consistent with his extraordinary career, caused by a mistake in turn 13:
"My pace was pretty good on the last lap of Q1 even the time looked good, but I ended up sideways in Turn 13 and that was it. It's a shame because the car was going well. Tomorrow is another day we start pretty far back, but we will try to have a good race as much as possible and bring home a good result".
And to round things off, the Haas team got the nineteenth and twentieth positions. Russian driver Nikita Mazepin is quite focused and doesn't want to give up:
"It's tough but there are still opportunities to be able to make a comeback. The race is always a different challenge, it gives you different opportunities than qualifying. It will be particularly interesting on this new layout. I would be ready to race tonight, I don't want to wait until tomorrow".
Mick Schumacher, on the other hand, is satisfied with his first year in Formula 1, especially if you evaluate the results obtained so far at the end of qualifying:
"I am happy that, overall, we had a good year with the qualifying pace but I think today was not the best test from my side as I could not find the right feeling with the car. These things happen, we learn from these experiences. Now we will analyse what we have done to see where and how we can improve. When we are in a position to go to Q2 more often next year, we won't repeat [the mistakes]. We had a pretty good car for qualifying, so hopefully we'll have an even better car for the race to go and fight".
After qualifying, Haas driver Nikita Mazepin tested positive in the Covid-19 test later in the evening and will not take part in the final race of the season. The American team will take to the track with only Mick Schumacher, as reserve driver Pietro Fittipaldi did not participate in qualifying. This is the comment of Mazepin through the social channel Twitter:
"Hi, everyone! Sorry to report I’ve had a positive Covid test. Feeling totally fine but won’t be able to race today. Wishing all my fellow drivers a fantastic end to the season and sending thanks and love to everyone for their support".
The night of Saturday 11th of December 2021 is not yet over for Mercedes. Lewis Hamilton, just minutes before midnight, is still inside the paddock preparing every detail for the race. The eyes of the public are obviously on the title fight between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, which will be decided in the final race in Abu Dhabi. A victory for the Briton would make him the only driver in history to have won eight championships, one more than Michael Schumacher. Therefore, discussions about who was the strongest driver between the Englishman and the German, and in general about who is the greatest of all time, resurface. Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff has a clear idea on the matter:
"No one will ever be greater than Schumacher. Even if the statistics show Lewis in front, Michael has shaped a generation like no other, he is an iconic driver. It's also true that you can't compare different generations, and Lewis is the greatest of his generation".
Having said that, though, when talking about the ongoing title fight between Lewis and Max, Toto Wolff points out:
"Both deserve the world title and both have had their problems during the season. Max had crashes through no fault of his own, like in Hungary for example, while Lewis with the engine. But now we have a real picture of their respective speeds. After seeing similar situations over and over again in past races, it is good that Race Direction has made it clear that a new intentional incident will not be tolerated. It's an extremely tough battle, but if you do a manoeuvre like that, you know you probably won't be able to close the corner. But he's got away with it so far, so it's hard for him to accept that he won't be able to do it again, because at some point he would be punished for it".
He then adds:
"We are 1-0 to them, they had the tyres in a perfect window and the slipstream worked perfectly, that's why they are on pole. But personally I prefer to start on Medium. We will have a slight disadvantage at the start I guess and in the first 6-7 laps Verstappen will be going fast. But then we can go longer and at that point we can also try to control the positions on the track. We will study a lot with algorithms and software during the night. Whoever is the fastest tomorrow will win the race, regardless of the starting tyre. We have to think about that and recover, hopefully we will be on top. I think there's nothing I need to say to him [Lewis Hamilton]. I think he'll be angry - and that's good - and he'll be motivated to go after Verstappen. We're at a disadvantage, but we have to see the positive side. Sometimes it's not so bad as a starting point".
However, while Toto Wolff hopes that the race will be a sporting one, Max Verstappen is doing everything he can to avoid adding to the tension surrounding one of the fiercest season finishes ever seen in Formula 1 history. The Dutch driver, talking about Lewis Hamilton, exclaims:
"During the season the image I had of some people changed, not in a good way. It's not something I regret, but I've noticed that when there is a lot of pressure, some people show a different face. Only then does their true nature come out".
After that, the Dutchman goes further, telling the media:
"He will never admit that he is afraid of me. But I'm not afraid of him. I think I make him snowy when he sees me in the mirrors. He's a different driver to me, less aggressive. He doesn't know how to race like I do. I can't blame him for that, because he couldn't learn from my father like I did. I think I'm the best driver, and I think it's natural to think that when you're a Formula 1 driver. But I don't need to hear it from others, it's more important what I think and what people close to me think. But if I had been in his car, the season would have been decided long ago. I don't want to kick him out, I want to beat him. Some people find me aggressive, others very aggressive and others not. I just think I am myself. In the last few races I had to defend more because we were a bit slower. I don't have the luxury of controlling or running away, so I do everything I can to win. If I didn't think that, I would have to stay at home. And if I didn't have that attitude, we wouldn't be here on equal points but he would already be Champion".