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Formula One: Controversies Apart, Let’s Celebrate the Thriller in Abu Dhabi Capping an Epic Season

Both Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen equally deserved to be the Formula One world champion this year. However, iffy officiating by the FIA race director put a bad taste despite the thrilling finish.
Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton

Max Verstappen (left) and Lewis Hamiton at the podium of the Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

If you took even a cursory glance at the global sporting headlines over the past two days, you would have noticed Formula 1 featuring heavily in them. The season ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday turned out to be the cherry on the cake that was the 2021 FIA Formula 1 World Championship.

After seven straight seasons of Mercedes dominating Grand Prix racing, they were given a proper run for their money by Red Bull Racing-Honda, with Dutch driver Max Verstappen stealing the title from under Lewis Hamilton’s nose. Until the last few minutes of the season,  the seven-time champion looked set to win a record breaking eighth drivers’ championship. Everything was running to script for the Brit until Williams-Mercedes’ Nicolas Latifi crashed on the 53rd lap of the 58-lap race. 

Let us get to the reason why I was asked to write this piece by Leslie [Newsclick’s sports editor], who I have known since I started to cover motorsport. While the race’s conclusion was exciting because of Verstappen passing Hamilton on the last lap to win the title, it was controversial in equal measure. 

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It wasn’t easy to make sense of what was going on as both supporters of Hamilton and even some from the Verstappen camp were critical of how the FIA race director, Michael Masi, handled the situation. 

So, what exactly happened in this epic championship conclusion and why did Mercedes lodge two protests that were rejected by the race stewards? 

Latifi lost control of his car at the exit of the 14th of 16 turns at the Yas Marina Circuit. The impact against the safety barriers left the car stricken in such a manner that Masi called for yellow flags to be shown all around the circuit and for the drivers to keep running on track behind the safety car. 

It was done to give the track marshals enough time to get a crane to lift Latifi’s car out of harm’s way, check for damage to the barriers and clear any debris from the crash. 

As soon as that happened, Red Bull Racing got Verstappen to come into the pits to change his tyres from the hard compounds he had been using since lap 35. Lewis Hamilton remained on the set of hard compound tyres he had been using since lap 14. 

Red Bull’s logic for pitting Verstappen was simple, with the cars crawling behind the safety car, he would not lose track position to the drivers behind him who both he and Hamilton were well ahead of. And with the cars being ordered to follow each other behind the safety car until the race restarted, Verstappen would have much newer tyres than Hamilton and would be right behind him to attempt an overtaking maneuver. 

Prior to the race, Verstappen and Hamilton were tied in the championship standings with 369.5 points apiece. Verstappen was beaten off the line from pole position by Hamilton whose Mercedes was by far the fastest car on the F1 grid for the previous three rounds. 

So Red Bull took no chances and put on a set of the softest compound tyres available. Mercedes wanted to keep track position and hope the safety car period would last long enough for there to be no racing at all. 

This is where things started to get muddled. The FIA race director made the uncharacteristic decision to not allow the cars that had been lapped by the race leaders to overtake the safety car and assume their positions at the back of the running order.

For those who have followed F1 since the 1990s, this change to safety car protocol had been made in the 2000s to allow the drivers in contention for a win to race each other rather than have drivers who didn’t factor into the fight for the win potentially interfering. 

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There was much confusion then, over the decision of the race director to not clear the lapped drivers and just let the championship contenders go at it. That confusion and bewilderment got worse when, just as the safety car period was about to finish at the end of lap 57, five of the eight lapped drivers were told to overtake the safety car and unlap themselves. 

Hamilton became a sitting duck, for lack of a better description, as Max Verstappen could now get close behind him as the cars crossed the start-finish line to start the final lap and then use the much greater grip on his tyres to brake much later than Hamilton into the slow corners at the end of the circuit’s two long straights. 

That is exactly how it played out as Verstappen passed Hamilton and resisted his attempts to retake the position using the Mercedes’ superior top speed. 

The televised broadcast of the races this year has allowed viewers to not only hear radio chatter between drivers and their pit crews but also between the FIA race director and the team bosses. Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff was incensed at the decision to let the lapped cars pass but the race director refused to entertain his request to negate the provisional race result and classify the finishers in the order they were running at the end of lap 57. 

Mercedes subsequently lodged two protests. One that claimed that Verstappen broke the safety car rules by getting ahead of Hamilton before the race restart. The replays showed that on a couple of occasions Verstappen’s car had inched just ahead of Hamilton’s as the latter tried to hold up the field behind him before accelerating away to start the final lap at full speed. However, because Verstappen was well behind Hamilton through the final three corners of lap 57, he remained well behind and didn’t gain any advantage. 

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The second protest was against the decision to let the five lapped drivers in between Hamilton and Verstappen to unlap themselves. Mercedes believed that either all eight lapped drivers should have been allowed to do so or none at all. 

Both protests were dismissed by the stewards and the second one done on the grounds of evidence from the race director that the teams had long stated a desire to end a race in racing conditions rather than behind a safety car and hence no lapped drivers should be allowed to interfere in the racing between the leaders.

The dismissal of the protests was confirmation of Verstappen claiming his first F1 world championship, the first Dutch driver to do so and the first driver to win a title driving a Honda powered car since Ayrton Senna in 1991. 

As a fan and as someone who successfully managed to be paid to follow and cover motorsport, I found the finale to be thrilling but also saw the point of those who felt Hamilton got the short end of the stick. And the blame for that lies entirely with the way FIA race director Michael Masi handled the situation on Sunday. 

To make a baffling choice that went against what was an established safety car procedure – allowing lapped drivers to unlap themselves – and then go back on it at such a late stage during a tense championship battle that had already seen collisions and bad blood earlier in the season was not good at all. 

It needlessly made things complicated and now, of course, Mercedes has announced its intention to appeal the race stewards’ decision to dismiss their protests. Red Bull Racing has, in turn, vowed to fight against Mercedes’ appeal, even if it means the matter becomes a legal one. 

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That’s no way to settle the outcome of a world championship, especially a closely fought one between two drivers who were, by far, the class of the field. 

Ultimately Mercedes paid the price for being too conservative with their tyre strategy as even if they had copied Verstappen and pitted for new soft tyres immediately after he had, Hamilton would have had the pace and the grip available to chase after and possibly pass Verstappen. 

At the very least, Mercedes could have pitted Hamilton after Verstappen made his second tyre stop on lap 35. Hamilton would have probably lost track position to Verstappen again, but, on identical tyres, he would have caught and passed Verstappen due to the pace advantage the Mercedes had. 

And then he would have been on tyres that were less than twenty laps old when Latifi crashed instead of tyres almost 40 laps old. It could have given him that extra bit of grip needed to possibly stay ahead of Verstappen on the final lap. 

Ultimately Verstappen’s good fortune in the race could also be seen as fate giving him a break as the 24-year-old Dutchman missed out on scoring a total of at least 38 points through no fault of his own at the Azerbaijan and Hungarian Grands Prix. 

Hamilton on the other hand, had made mistakes that cost him points at rounds in Azerbaijan and Turkey. A sub-par qualifying performance at the Monaco Grand Prix, a circuit where a poor starting grid spot can cost you dear, led to a 14-point lead in the championship for Hamilton turning into a four-point deficit. 

Both drivers equally deserved to be world champion this year. However, confusing officiating by the FIA race director did put a bad taste in some people’s mouth despite the thrilling finish. 

Hopefully this will help make things clear for anyone who caught wind of this amazing conclusion to an amazing F1 season. With drastically new technical regulations being introduced from next season, F1 will be headed into uncharted territory with no way of telling what the pecking order will be. 

I can, with some certainty guarantee that we won’t witness a season such as this again, but what do I know? I had predicted that the conclusion of the 2021 F1 season would be anticlimactic!

(The author is a motorsport journalist who has covered national and international events for print and digital media for over a decade)

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