A sour taste lingers after Abu Dhabi and felt more like a ploy than a sporting outcome.
Which side are you on? Who do you support? However the question is asked, the divide of allegiances has been rife throughout a thrilling 2021 season. Coming into Abu Dhabi the paddock was split and anticipation was high. In the UK, Sky Sports' coverage was, for the first time, shared with free-to-air TV. I have no idea of the viewership, but I imagine millions of households switching off somewhere around lap 58.
Max would ultimately prevail, based on a decision which baffled the best of us. Just moments before the call to un-lap the only 5 cars that sat between the two title contenders came to light, Verstappen himself was on the radio after hearing that all cars would remain as they were. "Thought so," he said, "expected". In the post race interview he said that the decision was "totally clear to me". Like many of the fans that the follow the sport, we take the bad decisions that come in our favour as being clear, maybe even a form of justice - simply because we've benefited.
What is clear is that 22 tracks and 9 months of racing came down to a single decision that would unlikely have been made had it not been the final lap of the final race of the season. "It's motor racing, Toto", said Race Director Michael Masi as he made his call. But where do we go from here? Do the rules and regulations for all other 22 races count? Completing a year of work for it to be undone by a single call is a bitter pill to swallow.
"Red Bull's carefully crafted response talks about winning the race on track, a statement that takes the corner of truth from the gargantuan frame of favour and luck."
In this circumstance, does this also add a sour taste to victory? It's hard to look back without remembering this win by Verstappen as controversial, despite how good he's been all season. The credibility of the decision that allowed to Max cross the line first is something that, even a week on, just won't go away. Even now we continue to look back now at the disqualification of Senna in '89, a controversy that gifted his then-title-rival Alain Prost the Championship. To this day that particular incident still haunts the FIA, who at the time, were publicly called out by Senna as deliberately targeting him. Driving ability has for some time allowed parallels to be drawn between Hamilton and his hero Senna, but heartache at the behest of your sport is now something that one can draw comparisons to.
In many ways, it's very sad for Max. His first interviews have been marred with questions about Lewis, something that I sincerely doubt will go away next season. Red Bull's carefully crafted response talks about winning the race on track, a statement that takes the corner of truth from the gargantuan frame of favour and luck.
Now come the repercussions. A lot of this season has been driven by entertainment, regardless of what Michael Masi said to Toto Wolff on the radio. And it has been that - incredibly dramatic, tense and action packed. But Mercedes feel the line has been crossed and we should not doubt the seriousness of how they are taking this. And it's clear that they're hurting - I don't think I've ever seen their social media so abundantly particular in how and what they've been posting. In fact as I'm writing this, they have yet to post a congratulatory message to Max Verstappen and I doubt there will ever be a formal acknowledgment, even if they did withdraw their appeal. I would not take their silence as merely a sulk - their actions could have serious ramifications on the sport.
Hamilton has also yet to post anything at all since before the race. Could this be the end for him? His two choices are to come back stronger than ever - with a revenge dress to match Diana's for that matter - or quit. I once again draw comparison to Senna, who after being publicly humiliated by the FIA came back the following year more determined than ever to win. But is there the trust in the FIA, or in Red Bull for that matter to play fair? Many of the teams and drivers have stayed quiet - at least publicly - on the issue at hand which implies Mercedes might be in the minority here.
The latter would likely have disastrous consequences on the sport. Hamilton is arguably still, despite no longer being the reigning champion, the face of Formula 1. He's known far beyond the sport, and the biggest name since Schumacher for the same reason. The FIA this week acknowledged the controversy somewhat, stating that the incident was "tarnishing the image of F1", something that can only be reflected by the uproar and outrage from the community. Sure, Verstappen's fanbase being loudest online, but as of today his following is 30% of Hamilton's on social media - an amount that the FIA simply cannot afford to lose overnight.
Many Hamilton fans, including myself, were resigned to that new champion was likely inbound. It was inevitable at a time when Mercedes have only had themselves to compete with. However, on these particular terms Formula 1 now risks losing millions of existing fans through controversy and in addition, has likely confused any new fans who tuned in for the first time on Sunday.
It was the ending that nobody wanted. Verstappen fans rejoiced around the world and deservedly so, but part of the joy is being able to share it with those you fought against in the hope that the same level of competition returns again. By far the most exhausting part of this season has been the awful words exchanged by people online, in the paddock and in the press with everyone hoping that the final word would be settled by the eventual victor. Now it feels as though the debate will never end, with neither side fully satisfied. For me, I like every other fan will take the winter break to try and reset, but I doubt this will ever be fully over. For a sport that I've followed religiously for 15 years, it'll likely take more than 3 months to fully heal.
Photo provided by Phil Ibarrola & not for reuse