While there were several outstanding year-long performances by the other 18 drivers on the grid this year, it cannot be argued that the two men at the head of the field, namely Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, were a cut above the rest this year. The friction between the pair really squeezed out the best from each other, but also highlighted their weaknesses that we had seen glimpses of in previous campaigns. Let us take a more detailed look at how these two undisputed titans of not just the sport, but motorsports in general stack up against one another.
Who took the crown when it came to Saturday pace?
Looking at statistics alone, one would assume that Hamilton was the better qualifier compared to his nemesis from The Netherlands, with an average position of 2.14 compared to Max’s 2.82 (not including penalties). In fact, Lewis qualified in the top 4 on every occasion apart from a particularly off-colour session in Monaco where Charles Leclerc’s Q3 crash prevented him from clocking in a faster time, staying in 7th. But the stats don’t tell the whole story. Verstappen’s average is adversely impacted by a no-show in Russia where he didn’t take part in qualifying altogether due to having penalties which would put him at the back of the grid regardless. If we disregard Russia, then Max actually has the better average qualifying position (2.00 vs. 2.05 for the Brit). But the difference there is negligible. They both set the fastest lap on Saturday 8 times as well. It’s a tie regarding this particular metric!
What about consistency?
Max Verstappen had more retirements than Hamilton in 2021, not making the chequered flag in Azerbaijan, Great Britain and Italy. This is in contrast to Lewis, who only failed to reach the finish line in Italy as well after the pair dramatically took each other out of the race at the first chicane on lap 23. However each of Verstappen’s retirements cannot be attributed solely to himself. His tyre had a mind of its own at Baku; he suffered a 51G impact at Silverstone after Hamilton went into him and Monza is still a matter of contention for many fans of both drivers. Let’s just say they were both to blame! Furthermore, Max only just scraped into the points in Hungary (9th) but this was because he was clattered by an out-of-control Lando Norris, who he himself had been hit by Bottas of Mercedes. I don’t think any of these can be considered his fault. In every other race, the Dutch driver finished in either 1st or 2nd; an excellent display of driving consistency. Unfortunately I don’t think the same can be said for Lewis Hamilton. He simply didn’t have the pace in Monaco to improve beyond his 7th place qualifying result (admittedly, it is very difficult to overtake at the municipality) and at the following event in Azerbaijan he inadvertently turned on the so-called “brake magic”, causing him to miss his braking point following a restart and drop to a lowly 15th. Finally, a poorly-timed decision to not come into the pits at Istanbul cost him valuable points against his closest rival. Unlike with Verstappen, these poor results were at least partially of Hamilton’s own making. For this reason, Verstappen wins this contest!
Who was really faster though?
There are a couple of ways you could tackle such a question. ScuderiaFans recently calculated the average lap time that each driver in the 2021 season clocked in (https://scuderiafans.com/average-lap-time-for-every-driver-who-participated-in-2021-f1-season/) and since both Max and Lewis participated in all 22 races of the campaign, I considered this to be a reliable metric. Sure enough, Verstappen recorded an average lap time 0.4 seconds faster than that of Lewis Hamilton (1:25.7 vs. 1:26.1). But there’s several caveats worth pointing out regarding this statistic. First of all, it doesn’t take into consideration the length of each circuit. Verstappen only managed half a lap at the feature race of the British Grand Prix while Hamilton had to complete the entire race on a circuit which has lap times often in excess of 1:30, which would inevitably increase his average lap time. Moreover, at some races the drivers may have been opting for a slower 1-or-2 stop strategy rather than a faster strategy with more pit stops, which would also bring the average up. Also depending on the relative speed advantage of the car beneath their bums, the pace pendulum swung from the Dutch to the British driver and vice versa many times over the year. This one is also a tie.
Charges through the field?
One of the hallmarks of any great Formula 1 driver is their ability to scythe their way past slower vehicles and putting their remarkable race craft on full display. Owing to their dominance of qualifying this year, we didn’t get to see a great deal of overtaking masterclasses from Lewis or Max. But both of them had stand-out performances from near the back of the grid, reminding us of the raw talent emanating from their racing gloves and shoes. For Lewis Hamilton, it is unlikely that may F1 fans around the globe will forget his weekend in Sao Paulo. Forced to start the sprint race from 20th position after a technical infringement, in just 24 laps Lewis elegantly dashed his way through the pack, gaining 15 PLACES to end up fifth. Effortless in his manoeuvres, he left all those directly in front of him absolutely no chance of defending. Then at the feature race, he started from 10th due to an ICE change. But his sheer momentum was insurmountable, leaving even Max Verstappen in his wake to claim a faintly believable race win. 28 positions gained over 95 laps is simply astounding, even by Hamilton’s standards. You’d think such a feat will be impossible for Max Verstappen to beat, and you would be correct. He actually had 2 races where he made up many places from the rear-end of the grid (Hungary and Russia), but they were no where near as exhilarating or impressive from a driving standpoint. Hamilton takes the victory in this sector!
So, who was the winner in my heart?
After all that deep analysis, it has ended up as a tie. Now you could go on for literally forever discussing the weightings of each of the categories I’ve discussed in this article, but I believe it would be wiser (not to mention more concise) to tell you who I think was the better driver over the course of the season:
Lewis Hamilton: 9.5/10
While I’m sure he is bitterly disappointed with not walking away with a record 8th WDC, Hamilton can hold his head high having had one of the greatest head-to-head battles we have ever seen in the world of motorsport. In the end he came up just short, but this was without doubt one of the most remarkable season-long drives I have witnessed from the veteran Briton. I think due to his outright dominance in recent years, many fans had forgotten exactly how Lewis Hamilton had achieved such legendary status in the first place. His precision behind the wheel as well as strategic nous was all the more evident in 2021 as his Mercedes car wasn’t quite as far ahead of the rest as it was in previous seasons, requiring him to overtake and defend much more than in 2020. We saw flashes of brilliance at the highest order on certain weekends such as Russia and Brazil, where against all odds he either fought back from adversity or by other means showed us why he had won the World Driver’s Championship seven times. But unfortunately I cannot give him a flawless score because on a few occasions he faltered and made uncharacteristic mistakes which may have cost him the title. Azerbaijan and Turkey once again come to mind. To extract every ounce of performance out of a car at every race event over the course of an entire year is almost impossible, and perhaps Lewis fell victim to the ever increasing season lengths and sprint qualifying thrown into the mix as well. But one driver managed to rise above this physical and mental mountain, delivering what can only be described as a once-in-a-lifetime drive by a once-in-a-lifetime driver…
Max Verstappen: 10/10
I think the large majority of F1 fans expected that sooner or later, the Dutch wonderkid that is Max Verstappen would eventually win a World Driver’s Championship. We had seen glimpses of pure, unrivalled speed and will-to-win in previous seasons but his place as one of the sport’s titans was time and time again put in doubt by his reckless behaviour on track and the odd silly error. Now coming up to his 7th full season at the pinnacle of motorsport, his maturity behind the wheel reached incredible new heights in the 2021 season. All of his retirements had no link to his driving ability and his 9th place in Hungary can be majorly attributed to him picking up a huge amount of damage in the opening lap of the race. In every other race which he finished he was either 1st or 2nd. This is an incredible feat that I don’t think we will see again for quite some time and has truly cemented Verstappen as a legend. I won’t be surprised to see him rack up several more titles in the coming years, especially considering the guy is only 24 years of age! My excitement for next year is starting to boil over… bring on 2022!
|Carlos Sainz Jr.||9.0|