Christian Horner has no doubt that Max Verstappen earned his 2021 title win at the controversial season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The Red Bull Racing team principal feels like the Michael Masi controversy has created a "smokescreen" over Mercedes' tactical mistake of not pitting Lewis Hamilton during the safety car period.

There was no doubt that the Austrian team were second best to Mercedes and Hamilton on the day at the Yas Marina Circuit, but they went all out on their strategy to put pressure on their title rivals. Red Bull were aggressive with their tyre strategy, and stopped Verstappen early in his second stint, while also pitting again under the safety car in the final five laps.

Mercedes, on the other hand, chose not to stop Hamilton on both occasions - the initial virtual safety car and the safety car - despite the driver asking for fresh tyres. The Silver Arrows wanted to protect their track position, and it ultimately cost them as Verstappen overtook Hamilton on the final lap with the fresh set of soft tyres giving him superior grip.

Christian Horner
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP

While all the focus was on Masi's decision to controversially restart the race on the final lap, Horner feels many forget to see Mercedes' mistake by not pitting the British racer. The Red Bull chief believes his team earned the win by being aggressive and by Verstappen making the pass on the final lap. As the great Murray Goodwin always said, "catching the car is one thing, but is passing is another."

"Tactically, we were sharp at the end. When the crash came five laps from the end we reacted immediately," Horner told talkSPORT. "We got Max in, pitted him for a new set of tyres, Mercedes left Lewis out on what was 44-lap tyres at the end of their life."

"The bottom line was that tactically we got it right. Max delivered the move and became the world champion. It's a bit of a smokescreen as when you look back at the race, Mercedes had two opportunities to pit."

"There was a virtual safety car and then there was a safety car. The driver was asking to pit on both occasions and they left him out," he added. "That's what exposed him at the end of the race. Tactically we got it right and it's those small margins."

The first pre-season test ahead of the 2022 Formula 1 season gets underway on Feb. 23 at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona. Hamilton has made it clear that he is gunning for Verstappen's title, but Red Bull remain confident about giving the Dutch racer a car capable of fighting the Mercedes.

Lewis Hamilton
Max Verstappen won an epic season-long battle with reigning champion Lewis Hamilton ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP