Red Bull team principal Christian Horner has spoken of his joy of witnessing Max Verstappen snatch the 2021 championship on the final lap of the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Verstappen and title rival Sir Lewis Hamilton entered the final round of the season level on points after what had been an astonishing season of racing, and the Briton was leading his rival by a comfortable margin with a handful of laps remaining.
However, the Safety Car was deployed late on when Williams driver Nicholas Latifi collided with the barrier, leaving his car stranded on the circuit.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff had pleaded with race director Michael Masi not to send the Safety Car onto the circuit but, when he did, Red Bull took the opportunity to pit their driver.
Mercedes opted to leave Hamilton out on track, fearing that a loss of track position so late on in the grand prix would cost them the title – particularly were there to be no more green flag running.
This left five lapped cars between the pair and Masi initially ruled that, due to the time constraints, no lapped runners would gain their lap back.
However, ahead of the penultimate lap of the race, the Australian decided to allow only the five between the leaders go, leaving the remaining drivers in position.
The Dutchman would then pass the 37-year-old on the final lap of a breath-taking championship.
Preceding this slice of fortune for the 24-year-old was a race-ending puncture in Azerbaijan, two collisions with Hamilton in Silverstone and Monza, and a Valtteri Bottas clear-out in Budapest.
Horner therefore believes that the events of 2021 – both positive and negative – balanced each other out.
“If you look at the season as a whole, we had a lot of bad luck and we got fortunate with the incident at the end of the race,” he said in an interview with WION.
“The Safety Car was the inevitable response to that and tactically we made the right call.”
The 48-year-old indicated that Mercedes left the seven-time champion “exposed” out on track under the late Safety Car, affirming that race control never had the intention of allowing the championship to finish under a caution.
“We pitted Max, Mercedes left Lewis out and he was then going to be very exposed at a restart.
“Of course when the race did get started – which was always going to be the intention of the race director – you know Max had to go for it.”
The Briton details the euphoria when his driver landed the crucial overtake at Turn 5 on the final tour of the Yas Marina Circuit.
“He had one lap to make the pass, he did it and managed to convert the championship so it was an amazing feeling, and an amazing end to an incredible year,” he said.
Mercedes were left exasperated at the circumstances of Hamilton’s championship loss last month, and Wolff was busy preparing a protest into the closing events of the race while Horner was searching for him to commiserate the Austrian.
However, he did manage to grab a chat with Hamilton and his father, Anthony.
The Briton stresses the importance of respect after such an intense fight for the title.
“At the end of the day we’re a sport, we’re not saving lives. It’s a sport, it is fierce, it is competitive, but there has to be a respect at the end of it,” he explained.
“It’s been a long, hard, tough year last season and that’s why I went to see Toto following the end of the race.
“Unfortunately he wasn’t about, but I did manage to speak with Lewis and his father.
Red Bull missed out on their fifth Constructors’ Crown last season as Mercedes claimed their record eighth in a row.
The Milton Keynes-based outfit have retained their driver line up of Verstappen and Sergio Perez, while Hamilton is set to be joined by George Russell who has signed from Williams to replace Alfa Romeo-bound Valtteri Bottas.