Welcome back to quite an important edition of the column folks. It’s the business end of the F1 season, and what an F1 season it has been. This week we wrap it all up at Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi. And what better place for an F1 title fight than UFC’s own Fight Island?

If you haven’t been keeping up with Formula One this season, one, where have you been all year, and two, you’re missing out on motorsport history. Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton have had a battle for the F1 Championship that legends are made from. Both drivers enter the final grand prix of the 2021 season tied at 369.5 championship points.

Where we stand:

It’s simple enough tomorrow morning: whoever finishes ahead of the other, wins the title. For a season as dramatic as this to come down to the final race is almost unprecedented, a once-in-a-lifetime moment for fans of the sport.

At Zandvoort in Max Verstappen’s home country of the Netherlands, it almost seemed certain that Verstappen and Red Bull would run away with the championship, Mercedes simply couldn’t match their pace. After victories for Verstappen in Austin and Mexico City, he and Red Bull had a few fingers on the title.

A dramatic late charge by Lewis Hamilton, aided by an increasingly quick Mercedes engine and a superhuman performance in Brazil, turned the tide in their favor for the end of the year. In Brazil, Hamilton overcame grid penalties in sprint race qualifying, and was incredibly quick in the grand prix, passing Verstappen with a handful of laps remaining to steal a victory. 

I even wrote in my last column before the race that Hamilton “likely won’t be in the fight” for the win, and oh how wrong I was. What seemed almost a cakewalk for Verstappen became one of the signature race weekends and victories of Lewis Hamilton’s career.

Earlier in the season I heard the Hamilton/Verstappen battle coined as “Ayrton Senna vs. Alain Prost for the social media era” and it’s almost more than that. It’s Senna/Prost, it’s James Hunt v. Niki Lauda, and it has aspects of every great F1 title fight to date, all under the microscope of modern sport.

Every move, on track and off, is scrutinized to the nth degree by media and fans worldwide. Verstappen has claimed that he’s held to a different standard by the media and perhaps by fans, but not without precedent. Max has been uncompromising throughout his racing career, dating back to his youth karting days.

Creating a champion:

Verstappen comes from an almost perfect background for a prospective F1 Driver’s Champion. His father is well known, Jos Verstappen, a former F1 driver in his day who claimed two podiums and also won the LMP2 class at the 2008 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Jos has been somewhat of a confidant for Max in the F1 paddock, constantly in the Red Bull garage during the season. Unlike most sports parents who didn’t accomplish their personal dreams, Jos gets the best of both worlds, an F1 podium winner and the father of a future F1 champion, if not this season, then eventually.

Max’s mother, Sophie Kumpen, is also a former racing driver, who competed in karting alongside 2009 F1 champ Jenson Button, and also competed against Christian Horner, Max’s team principal at Red Bull. 

Sophie Kumpen (right) and Lotta Hellberg

Max’s aggressive nature, his signature driving style, was formulated from a young age. More than any other driver on the current F1 grid, Verstappen was almost genetically destined for this moment, on the precipice of a championship, with one race to decide it all.

Where Max has that lifetime of experience, raised by racers, training harder than most from a very early age, Lewis Hamilton became a master of his craft through his years and years of experience. Hamilton, at 36, has been racing at some level for 28 years, four years longer than Verstappen has been alive.

I’ve joked in my racing group chats about Lewis being almost a racing AI, incredibly mindful of every little thing, and that’s a product of those years and years of racing experience. There’s nothing he hasn’t seen, no situation he hasn’t meticulously prepared for.

To some who are purely race fans, they see Lewis attending the Met Gala, going to movie premieres, living a Hollywood lifestyle that few athletes can fathom, and think he isn’t focused on his racing. Just because Lewis’s simulator sessions don’t make his Instagram as much as his more Hollywood exploits, doesn’t mean the man isn’t prepared to race.

That preparation, that “first guy in, last guy out” mentality, seems a bit of a cliche, but has produced results for Hamilton and Mercedes, especially this season. With Verstappen now competing directly against him, Hamilton has had to find a level of performance he perhaps hasn’t needed for some time.

Where Max has his father Jos in the paddock offering advice and moral support, Lewis has had his physiotherapist Angela Cullen flanking him just about everywhere but inside the car. Hamilton credits Cullen as “one of the greatest things that’s happened to me in my life”, crediting her positivity and how it’s changed his racing.

Starting last season, Cullen has been a constant presence in the Mercedes garage, and if you follow Hamilton or the Mercedes team on social media, you’re guaranteed to see her alongside Lewis out for a jog, walking into the garage, or in the Mercedes dogpile following a race win.

Hamilton and Angela Cullen in 2020

It’s been thirteen years since Lewis won his first F1 title, and he’s broken just about every record there is to break in the sport. One record he’s still chasing, and can clinch at Abu Dhabi, is becoming the first driver to win eight F1 World Championships.

Setting up Sunday:

The strategy of the race has largely been decided by the qualifying session on Saturday morning. Notably, Verstappen will be starting the race from pole position on the soft tire, and Lewis Hamilton starting at P2 on the harder medium tire. 

For the F1 uninitiated, what that means is that Max Verstappen has a quicker, grippier tire to start the race. All well and good for the first lap, but after a couple laps around the Yas Marina circuit, the softer tire will begin to wear, where Hamilton’s medium tire will be in good shape for a longer run at the start of the race. 

Verstappen starts on the softs tomorrow after he locked his front left brake and flat-spotted one of his medium tires in Q2, the second qualifying session on Saturday morning. He went out again on the soft tires to set a better time, and to avoid having to start on a medium tire that skidded across the runoff area. 

In theory, the tire offset gives Lewis Hamilton an advantage. For the first time in this column on what is ostensibly a sports betting blog, I will mention that the two title challengers are both even on odds, both -105 to win the Grand Prix as of this writing. No other driver currently has odds better than +2500 to win the race, Max’s Red Bull teammate Sergio Perez and Lewis’s Mercedes cohort Valtteri Bottas are both +2800.

One of the big talking points across Sky’s F1 coverage this weekend has been the possibility of a collision between Verstappen and Hamilton, with some rather unfairly considering the notion that Verstappen would intentionally wreck his title challenger. If the two were to collide and not be able to finish the race, Verstappen would win the championship.

Verstappen, to his annoyance, has had to answer questions about that topic countless times, and he and Red Bull have repeatedly said they want to win it on track the right way. The way that Sky in particular, but most of the largely British media covering F1 have been clamoring over a possible wreck is very NASCAR. 

NASCAR makes a bit of a habit of advertising the wrecks and mayhem their races have to offer, but the big difference between F1 cars and stock cars is that the stock cars are actually made to bump, where F1 cars are essentially rocket ships made of carbon fiber, that get torn apart enough by curbs on the ground, let alone bumping into other cars going 170+ miles per hour.

As fans, as prospective sports bettors, the two title contenders crashing and ending the fight unceremoniously would be a disappointing end to this season. Perhaps outside influences, like Esteban Ocon’s great drive for Alpine at the last race in Saudi Arabia, will play a part in the title fight. Lando Norris, rather surprisingly to himself, qualified P3 about a half-second behind Hamilton on the soft tire. Lando possesses the speed around a lap to make the start potentially more interesting than just Max vs. Lewis, but probably won’t factor much into the race following that.

Teammate watch: Red Bull’s Sergio Perez starts in P4, and will be slotted right behind Lewis Hamilton at the race start. Perez is also on the soft tire, like Verstappen and Lando Norris ahead of him, and if Red Bull gets their way, he will try to jump ahead of Lewis and hold up the Mercedes while Max breaks away.

Valtteri Bottas starts in P6 on the medium tire following a somewhat disappointing final qualifying session for the Finn’s last weekend with Mercedes. Bottas still has the long-run pace in that car, and should be fighting for a podium come the end of the grand prix.

Okay, I feel like that’s a decent enough summary to get you ready for the race tomorrow.

Let’s get to it, picks for the final F1 race of 2021:

Lewis Hamilton to win -105: While Verstappen bested Hamilton in qualifying, that was largely aided by a slipstream provided by his Red Bull teammate down the longest straight at the Yas Marina Circuit. Hamilton went out without his teammate punching a hole in the air ahead of him, and still put up a competitive lap to qualify P2. Hamilton has a world of momentum on his side coming into this race, and starting on the medium tire, Lewis is best setup for the long run.

Lewis Hamilton leader after five laps +250: A bet that’s entirely dependent on the start of the race but a fun one at +250. This is a bet on Hamilton’s medium tires being in ideal shape right around when Max’s softs start to give way and wear after a few laps. Worth a flyer especially if you’re already locking in a bet on Lewis to win.

Valtteri Bottas podium finish +125: Bottas qualifying in P6 makes this plus money number possible, and like his teammate, will be starting on a tire better equipped for the long run in the race. Mercedes, even Bottas, has the pace to outclass anyone on the grid. It comes down to Bottas stringing it together in perhaps his final chance at an F1 podium, as he moves to Alfa Romeo next year and will be fighting a bit lower in the pack.

Charles Leclerc top six finish -120: Somewhat lost in the gripping drama at the front is how well Ferrari have performed at the end of the season. Their engine upgrade over the last stretch of races has paid dividends and they’ve all but sealed third place in the F1 Constructor’s Championship. At times, they’ve shown great flat-out pace, something missing from the Ferrari car since 2019’s controversial engine. The Monegasque driver starts P7.

Charles Leclerc head-to-head vs. Carlos Sainz -110: Sainz has the advantage at the start, in P5 compared to Leclerc’s P7, but Charles has had more consistent race pace, and should be able to make his way around his Ferrari teammate at some point.

Fernando Alonso top ten finish -150: Alonso had a great race in Qatar to pull off a surprise podium. The Alpine team as a whole have really made leaps and bounds with their car in the latter stages of the season. Ocon was mixing it up with Hamilton and Verstappen in Jeddah but lost out on a podium to Valtteri Bottas on the final straight. Expect more speed as Alpine puts “El Plan” into action this weekend.

Six plays for a title decider. Six plays for one of the most anticipated races in motorsport history. Let’s go racin’.