Only the last of the 1,297 racing laps that comprised the 2021 Formula 1 season mattered.
Only five laps after trailing leader Lewis Hamilton by 13 seconds and seemingly destined for a second-place finish in Sunday's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Honda's Max Verstappen found himself directly behind Hamilton with one lap to win the Formula One World Championship.
Verstappen trailed Hamilton at the start of the final lap but needed only three turns to slip inside and take the lead. The pair went wheel-to-wheel through the next few turns before Verstappen pulled away to win his first F1 title.
The Red Bull Racing driver gave Honda its first Formula One World Championship since Ayrton Senna won the title in 1991, and Honda won 11 races this season, the most since 1988. (15).
Verstappen started on pole but quickly fell behind Hamilton, who held on to the lead despite briefly deviating from the course to avoid a Turn 4 challenge from the polesitter. The Dutchman pitted from second place on Lap 14, and Hamilton passed him one lap later, promoting Sergio Perez's Honda to the lead, where he would spend the next six laps fighting off Hamilton and allowing Verstappen to shave nearly eight seconds off his lead.
Verstappen's pit stop during the Lap 36 Virtual Safety Car period provided him with new tyres, but it also dropped him nearly 20 seconds behind the leader. With six laps to go, he had closed to within 13 seconds when Nicholas Latifi saved the day. The Safety Car was deployed as a result of Latifi's crash, crowding the field and removing Hamilton's advantage.
Verstappen was able to close the gap on Hamilton, but he appeared to have five lapped cars between him and the leader, as Race Control determined that they would not have time to move the lapped vehicles while still providing a green-flag lap to determine the race. However, as the cars returned to the start of the final lap, the stewards allowed the lapped cars to pass the safety car, putting Verstappen directly behind Hamilton for the restart that would ultimately give him his first championship.
The Scuderia AlphaTauri Hondas had their best result in their two-year history, with Yuki Tsunoda finishing fourth and Pierre Gasly fifth. Perez was on the verge of a podium finish in the final laps but was forced to retire before the final restart.
The victory and championship put an end to Honda's participation in Formula 1 after the manufacturer returned in 2015. During those seven seasons, Honda won 17 of 141 races, with 13 poles and 49 podium finishes. Honda has won 89 races, six driver championships, and six manufacturer championships since its debut in F1 in 1964.
Honda F1 Technical Director Toyoharu Tanabe
"From the beginning of this current F1 project in 2015, winning championships has always been our goal." We put in a lot of effort, challenging ourselves every day as we worked to improve, and now we've accomplished our goal. We had to retire Checo from the race due to an anomaly on his PU data, but until then he demonstrated great team spirit, contributing to the final result.
Both drivers performed admirably for Scuderia AlphaTauri Honda throughout the weekend, with Yuki finishing fourth, his best result of his rookie season. He really put everything he learned this year together, and along with Pierre's usual strong drive to finish fifth, this was the team's best overall result of what has been an excellent year for them.
Unfortunately, we did not win the Constructors' title, but we are still pleased that Max won the Drivers' title. On behalf of Honda, I'd like to thank everyone at Red Bull Racing and Scuderia AlphaTauri, as well as all of the drivers we've worked with since 2015 and the fans who've always been there for us. Our Formula One challenge has concluded with this race, but the knowledge we gained will be applied to Honda's future technologies, and Honda will continue to take on new challenges in the future. A final thank you to everyone in Formula One."
Honda F1 Managing Director Masashi Yamamoto
Honda's F1 project comes to an end with today's race. We returned to the sport in 2015 as a PU supplier, drawn in by this sophisticated hybrid PU technology. We fought against very strong rivals in our final season and came out on top of the Formula One world. This is due to the efforts of all of our engineers and mechanics, not just those on the racetrack. Even during the most difficult times, they never gave up and made numerous technological breakthroughs along the way. We were able to demonstrate the validity and efficacy of our technology, as well as the capabilities of our workforce.
Of course, we could not have achieved these results without the significant contributions of our fantastic partners, Red Bull Racing, with whom we won the championship, and Scuderia AlphaTauri, who welcomed us with open arms and allowed us to move forward together after a difficult three years. We must not forget McLaren, with whom this era began in 2015, and all of the drivers who have worked with us, always giving their all to achieve the best results possible.
We can call this project a success because we leave the sport having assisted Max Verstappen in winning the Drivers' World Championship. It may be considered an even greater success, however, if it remains in the hearts and minds of our fans and serves as an example to them when they, too, face a great challenge. Honda is now moving on to a new challenge, aiming to be carbon neutral while making the best use of Formula 1 technologies and human resources. While our company begins a new chapter, Red Bull Racing and Scuderia AlphaTauri will continue to use a PU developed by Honda. I hope the fans continue to support us. I'd like to thank everyone involved in this F1 project, as well as the fans, once more. Thank you very much.
Red Bull Racing Honda's Max Verstappen
First to start, first to finish – 2021 F1 World Champion
"Being World Champion feels incredible, and I couldn't have asked for a more insane final race of the year." It was a bit of a rollercoaster ride, from not having much of a chance to win until the final lap, when everything came together and we had to go for it. I kept telling myself, "I'm just going to give it my all until the end," and that's exactly what we did. Of course, with the safety car restart in the final lap, we had fresher tyres, but you still have to make the move – luckily, it worked out."
I'd like to express my gratitude to Checo, whose performance today helped me win the Championship; he worked tirelessly for this team. Today's performance exemplified the value of great teamwork; he's a fantastic teammate. Mercedes won the Constructors' Championship, and we won the Drivers' Championship, demonstrating that we pushed each other to the limit throughout the year. There is no doubt that Lewis is a fantastic driver. Of course, we had our moments throughout the season, but I believe you are aware that, despite everything, we had an incredible fight this season, and I believe both teams gave it their all."
Sergio Perez - Honda Red Bull Racing
Start: fourth, finish: fifteenth
First and foremost, I am overjoyed for Max and this Team because they have worked so hard all year and for so many years. Max has earned this championship by driving at such a high level. I'm thrilled to have contributed to his title; he's been a fantastic teammate and a wonderful person, and I couldn't be happier for him. Lewis was in command of the race, and Max was about 10 seconds behind, so I am overjoyed that I could contribute to the outcome.
I was on extremely old tyres, so there wasn't much I could do, but I did manage to take a couple of seconds off Lewis, which was critical and had an effect on the race. You don't want to get involved in their Championship and battle because they've worked so hard to get to this point, but this is my Team, and I did that for my Team and for Max. With the way the race ended, I believe I could have finished second today, but I had to retire because my car was not looking good and could have resulted in another safety car. It's a shame we didn't win Constructions, but I'm extremely pleased with the work we've done this season."
Scuderia AlphaTauri Honda's Pierre Gasly
Start position: 12th, Finish position: 5th
I'm overjoyed to have finished in P5 today; it's the best way to end the year. It's been an incredible season, the most successful for us as a team in 15 years, with many points scored and many highlights. We've focused on ourselves every race, and I believe we've done well this season, so I'm very proud of everyone. I'm overjoyed for Max; we grew up racing together and knew he'd be World Champion one day, and he did it today. It's well deserved, and I'm also happy for Honda, who have managed to win the Championship in their final year after years of hard work."
Yuki Tsunoda - Honda Scuderia AlphaTauri
Start: eighth, finish: fourth (career-best result)
I'm overjoyed; what a fantastic way to end the season. Overall, I think the car has been really strong this weekend; I didn't expect the race pace to be quite as good, but in the end, it's been a great day. It's incredible to be finishing the season on such a high note; it's been a long road to get here, but I've really rebuilt my confidence, and it's great to go into the off-season with this incredible result. Congratulations to Max; it was a tough battle all season, and I believe he truly deserved it today. I'd also like to thank him for providing this fantastic result for Honda, as he's provided them with the best way to celebrate their final year in Formula One."