Formula 1: The ‘human error’ that sealed the 2021 championship

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Formula 1 (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Formula 1 (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images) /

Last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix saw the real “human error” that ultimately sealed the 2021 Formula 1 world championship.

The 2021 Formula 1 world championship battle between Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton came down to the final lap of the final race of the season, with Verstappen passing Hamilton on lap 58 of 58 of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit.

The title protagonists had entered the season’s 22nd and final race tied at 369.5 points, so Verstappen’s pass and ensuing defense of the lead delivered him his first world title while denying Hamilton what would have been a record-tying eighth.

But the final lap was deemed controversial by many, given a decision that was made during the preceding safety car period to allow only the lapped cars between Hamilton, who had led the majority of the race, and Verstappen to unlap themselves, ultimately setting up a one-lap shootout for the title.

The argument is that had all (not just “any”) of the lapped cars been allowed to unlap themselves, there would not have been enough time to restart the race, and it therefore would have ended behind the safety car, with Hamilton winning a fourth straight race and a fifth straight world title.

During the offseason, it was ruled by the FIA that “human error led to the fact that not all cars were allowed to unlap themselves”.

Of course, that “human error” wasn’t what formally determined the championship. When the race restarted with one lap to go, Hamilton was still in front, and although Verstappen did have new tires, we saw earlier in the race with Hamilton struggling to pass Red Bull’s Sergio Perez for several laps that newer tires by no means guaranteed a pass.

But Mercedes had two opportunities to pit Hamilton for newer tires themselves, and they took neither, as they did not want to sacrifice track position; it’s the Catch-22 scenario that comes with leading the race.

It’s nothing new, and they fell victim to it. Placing sole blame on Michael Masi was nothing more than a desperate deflection technique.

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So let’s talk about the one “human error” that singlehandedly determined the outcome of the 2021 world championship, once the dust had settled.

Verstappen was well on his way to winning last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit when his car suffered a left rear tire failure and an ensuing blowout, sending him into the wall at full speed on the main straight.

It was an issue over which Verstappen, who had just taken the lead of the driver standings for the first time in his Formula 1 career after winning the prior race in Monaco, had no control.

The race was red flagged, and the ensuing restart was a standing start with two laps remaining, with teammate Sergio Perez in the lead ahead of Hamilton in second. Hamilton got the better start and appeared to take the lead, only to sail off into the turn one runoff area. He ended up settling for 15th place, ending a 55-race streak of points-scoring finishes.

It cost him 25 points.

It was discovered after the race by Mercedes that Hamilton had accidentally activated their so-called “brake magic” button, and that’s what led to the uncharacteristic mistake — the “human error”.

Of course, Hamilton still made out a lot better than he would have had Verstappen’s tire issue not happened. Verstappen was on track to win the race with the fastest lap, which would have scored him 26 points, and Hamilton was on track to finish in third place, which would have scored him 15.

So instead of losing 11 points in the title fight, he lost none — a net gain of 11.

But once Verstappen’s tire issue happened, Hamilton had a golden chance to outscore his rival by a whopping 25 points, marking a massive 36-point swing.

He could have turned a four-point deficit — which looked like it was going to become a 15-point deficit — into a 21-point lead at the time, and by the time the season finale rolled around, he would have owned a 25-point advantage.

He basically would have had the title sealed ahead of the season finale, just as he did during his title runs from each of the prior four seasons.

Instead, he missed out on world title number eight by eight points, thanks to a pass that took place with about a minute left in the entire season.

Naturally, there were many, many other individual moments throughout the season that played a role in the championship outcome, and highlighting one mistake from Hamilton may come off as a bit harsh.

Both drivers had their stellar moments, both drivers had their less-than-stellar moments, both teams had strategies that worked, and both teams had strategies that didn’t.

You simply don’t enter race 22 of 22 tied on points after eight and a half months of consistent wheel to wheel battles if that isn’t the case.

But this was one situation over which Hamilton had full control.

In terms of “human error”, this was the one that sealed the world championship on the race track, which is exactly where it should be decided.

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This year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix is scheduled to take place today, with ESPN set to provide live coverage from Baku City Circuit beginning at 7:00 a.m. ET. Start your free trial of FuboTV now and don’t miss any of the action.