BEHIND THE HEADLINES – Abu Dhabi – Five laps and four hours later

Behind The Headlines Features

Lewis Hamilton was on course for his eighth world title after leading much of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but that would all change with five laps remaining. But let’s start at the beginning, Hamilton’s title rival Max Verstappen beat him to pole, quite convincingly by three and a half tenths, one of the largest margins of the season.

Let’s put that in context, up until last year Mercedes had dominated in the turbo-hybrid era at Yas Marina taking every pole position up until last year as well as victory. We know that last year that Hamilton was still recovering from COVID, and Verstappen’s victory was a surprise given the circuit being dominated by Mercedes. Up until 2020, Mercedes had six back-to-back wins, Hamilton taking five wins the other two coming from his teammates Nico Rosberg and Valtteri Bottas.

Well as we said many of times this year, you have been unable to predict the results or which team would have the advantage, but we know things throughout the season in races have changed very quickly. Under pressure in ways we haven’t seen before in the hybrid era Mercedes have got things wrong, questionable decisions coupled with  Red Bull being closer to Mercedes means they haven’t been able to cover themselves off like in other years.

Five Laps

Again, we can say it came to five key laps right at the end. Nicolas Latifi crashed his Williams exiting the hotel section as he completed the last few corners of lap fifty-three, he crashed into the wall. Again, Hamilton led with Verstappen second by around eleven seconds.

This was the full safety car, which meant that cars bunched up behind the safety car, unlike the virtual safety car which maintains the gap. Latifi was battling with  Mick Schumacher throughout the lap he crashed and had dirty tyres after being run off the road at Turn 9.

“We were just really struggling for grip through the next sequence of corners, and especially where I ended up going off. It’s been a tricky corner all weekend for me, so dirty tyres, dirty air and I made a mistake.”

“I wasn’t aware of the situation of the race up until then. Obviously, it was never my intention to inadvertently influence that, but I made a mistake and ruined my own race.”

Nicolas Latifi, Williams

The accident was cleared away and with one lap to go the race was restarted, with overtaking allowed. That seemed unfair and key in this race, in my view Masi I think has always taken the approach of maximising racing laps, and yes, we have seen final lap title deciders.

Verstappen was able to pass the backmarkers. Coming up to the restart under the hotel Verstappen looked to get his nose alongside and when Hamilton vaulted, he managed to stay with him, and could have braked slightly later and started moving to the inside line while Hamilton stays on the outside.

Verstappen took a tighter line and lunged down the inside taking the lead of the race, and the championship. Was it right to restart with the final lap, that’s something which I think we will be debating for decades. Mercedes was angry, “no Michael, no Michael, that was so not right!” bemoaned Toto Wolff.

This begs a big question, is F1 policing the rules correctly or was the decision to restart which so much at stake the right one? One driver told BBC News anonymously, he believed that had this been any other race, it would simply have ended behind the safety car.

This begs the question, why allow that to happen, when everyone expected that the race would end behind the safety car. The fact that it’s the race director making championship-deciding decisions is going to be discussed and looked back on for decades to come.

Then we come to the restart procedure, the decision to let some lapped cars overtake but not all lapped cars overtake was odd.

These are the regulations

“Unless the clerk of the course considers the presence of the safety car is still necessary, once the last lapped car has passed the leader the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap.”

“If the clerk of the course considers track conditions are unsuitable for overtaking the message “OVERTAKING WILL NOT BE PERMITTED” will be sent to all Competitors via the official messaging system.”

While another says, “If the safety car is still deployed at the beginning of the last lap, or is deployed during the last lap, it will enter the pit lane at the end of the lap and the cars will take the end-of-race signal as normal without overtaking.”

The restart on track

During the restart phase, both Hamilton and Verstappen were prepared for the restart. Looking from the onboards Verstappen appeared to get momentum, as they passed the entry to the old chicane before lunging down the inside and taking the lead. Hamilton had two attempts to re-take the lead.

They came at the chicane where Hamilton was too far back, although he did look closer exiting. This led to him being able to get alongside on the support pit straight as they came to the new banked corner, on entry he got alongside but Verstappen pulled ahead that sealed the championship as Hamilton was unable to pass.

Verstappen’s pit stop gave him better tyres and grip, which means on the restart he could attack Hamilton and the move at the hairpin was bold, but he had to do it.

We know that as I’ve often said ‘F1 is cruel,’ this was in the view of many I think a race inferred with by the race director. But we cannot say that Verstappen isn’t a worthy champion, and that would be the same if Hamilton won his eighth. The situation was a difficult one.

Before the weekend, we did have Masi issue the teams with a reminder any unsporting conduct will be punished by possible penalties. Was his behaviour sporting that is the debate. ‘Any infringement of the principles of fairness in Competition, behaviour in an unsportsmanlike manner or attempt to influence the result of a Competition in a way that is contrary to sporting ethics.’

There are questions, I think, about whether the restart was fair with a lap to go. Verstappen as we know switched to fresher tyres under the safety car, was key while Hamilton stayed out on old tyres that was because Mercedes feared losing track position and thus the championship.

Even though Red Bull won the drivers championship, motorsport advisor Helmut Marko says that the sport needs simpler rules and a rethink on the way races are run. He told, “The whole system needs to be rethought. There needs to be consistency. Decisions cannot be interpreted once this way and once that way. The rules must be simplified. The premise must be: let’s race”

The theme whether you’re a driver, fan, commentator, team principal or owner is we are all asking for the same thing, consistency, when it comes to applying the rules. This goes beyond just the events of the final laps in Abu Dhabi, but there needs to a review of everything so going into next year we know what is and is not permitted.

Controversy and pressure

This is not the first time Masi has been under pressure, privately there have been several teams expressing concerns about how he has conducted himself. Masi was appointed race director on the eve of the 2019 Australian GP, following the sudden death of his predecessor Charlie Whiting.

Masi from what I have read and seen appears to interfere more, we can’t compare because we have only started hearing communications between the teams and race control. In last week’s BTH those frankly odd negotiations between Red Bull and Masi will only build pressure on him.

Who is Michael Masi?
    • His career began as a volunteer for Super Touring in his native Australia
    • He then moved after working his way up to being deputy race director in the Supercars touring car series and at Rally Australia
    • In 2018 he was appointed as the Formula Two and Formula Three deputy race director by the FIA.
    • Masi took on the role of F1 race director Charlie Whiting after his sudden death before the 2019 Australian Grand Prix.

Reports from BBC News, although no one has spoken on record there is some discontent both by teams and drivers about Masi. Let’s go back to Doha, following the collision and no penalties in Sao Paulo drivers were complaining about consistency, as while Hamilton Verstappen got away with their collision, others did not.

This goes back to the drivers briefing in Doha. Following which Russell, GPDA director said “Unfortunately there was no outcome (from the briefing. At the end of the day, we all want to race hard but that (Verstappen/Hamilton in Brazil) was hard and unfair.”

Hamilton on conduct said, “It’s not clear. Every driver, except for Max, was asking just for clarity. Most drivers were asking for clarity, but it wasn’t very clear.”

Meanwhile, Masi continued and to this day, insists that the rules were clear and that each and every case will be judged on its merits. Saying “You need to look at the whole situation and scenario. You can’t have two exactly the same incidents; you have slight nuances.”

Masi has a simple job, police the race along with the stewards, there are not four permanent stewards they alternate. You can’t in my view have four permanent stewards for the whole season that way you would lose independence as they would build up prejudice against certain drivers and teams.

That again brings up the question we asked last week about the consistency of stewarding, and there will be questions about Masi. “It’s called a motor race” but the final lap wasn’t fair, a few years ago, in Monaco 2010 Michael Schumacher was given a penalty for overtaking.

What could happen next… if Mercedes appeal

  • Mercedes needs to decide by Wednesday whether to launch an appeal
  • If they do the case would be heard now in January, given the Christmas break, by the FIA International Court of Appeal in the coming weeks, with Red Bull likely to also be present as an interested party.
  • The stewards then have a further 15 days to present their response
  • Then all those involved needed to wait another fifteen days, although these time limits may be shortened if all sides agree to it.
  • This process could run well into February and Barcelona Testing
  • Once everything has been submitted, it’s time for the hearing. A panel is formed of at least three judges,
  • Then like a normal court case, the judges and teams can call witnesses, for example one of the lapped cars.
  • Once all the evidence and arguments are heard the judges will come to a majority verdict.

What decision/verdict can be made

  • They can admit or dismiss the appeal, all of it or only parts of it.
  • They can confirm, overturn, reduce or increase any penalties awarded.
  • They can, in this case, take the race result from behind the safety car.
  • But they cannot order the race to be rerun.

If you thought the 2021 championship, with its bitterness, divisiveness, tremulous and unpredictably was over… we could be waiting until January!

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