We all knew that the end of the Formula 1 World Championship with it all to play for in Abu Dhabi was going to be a right cracker of a race with Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen level on points.
And with the first ding-dong where Max lunged deep into Turn 5 and Hamilton avoided the collision by going off track and the resulting controversy in the opening lap, we surely weren’t disappointed.
But nothing could have prepared us for the utterly mental end to the race that saw Lewis well ahead of Max when Nicholas Latifi binned his Williams in the barriers at Turn 14 on lap 52 of 58 that have left fans with far more questions about the FIA’s governance of Formula 1 races than we have answers.
In a nutshell, here’s what happened next:
- The safety car is deployed as a result of the incident and collects the field. At this point, there are five lapped cars between Lewis and Max.
- Max takes advantage of a free pit stop under the safety car and puts on a brand new set of soft tyres compared to Lewis running on hard tyres that had been on the car since lap 14. Mercedes were unwilling to risk giving up track position and were forced to stay out because had they boxed Lewis, Max almost certainly would have taken the lead by staying on track.
- The initial message from race control is that lapped cars would not be allowed to overtake. Normally, lapped cars are sent round the safety car to get them out of the way for the restart once the safety car is withdrawn on the following lap. Whilst clearing the lapped cars is not compulsory, it’s very rare that it isn’t done unless the circuit is compromised such that overtaking is not possible.
- Red Bull contacts the race director over the radio and protests this decision as being against normal convention. If the lapped cars are left in place, the most likely scenario is that the safety car dives into the pits at the end of the final lap with one corner remaining which Max would have no chance of overtaking all of the lapped cars and Lewis before the chequered flag is thrown.
- Michael Masi changes his mind but only clears the five lapped cars between Lewis and Max rather than all of the lapped cars to overtake the safety car.
- Mercedes contacts the race director over the radio and protests the decision to unlap as also against normal convention. They know that should the lights go out and racing resumes, Lewis is now a sitting duck on those knackered hard tyres with Max being on a brand-new set of softs and right on Lewis’ gearbox.
- Race control sends the message “Safety Car In This Lap” on lap 57 and the safety car is withdrawn a lap earlier than sporting regulation 48.12 would have suggested.
- Not terribly surprisingly, Max takes full advantage of the much better grip and overtakes Lewis at Turn 5 and even though Lewis valiantly tries to keep up with Max, those worn tyres just won’t allow it and Max crosses the line first and is declared the winner of the driver’s World Championship.
In my view, there’s two ways you can look at this:
The race director did not follow the rules set forth in the sporting regulations regarding sending the lapped cars through and withdrawing the safety car on the following lap which would have meant the race finished behind the safety car. End result…Lewis got screwed out of an 8th World Championship through no fault of his own.
Max Verstappen recovered from a poor start with a more aggressive driving style and Red Bull making timely calls on an aggressive strategy during the safety car period to give Max every chance of winning should the race return to green flag conditions. End result…Max is a worthy champion based on the season’s body of work and aggressive racing and gambles on strategy paying off.
I believe that both of those statements are equally true. But that doesn’t really get down to the nitty-gritty of where the problem lies which was on full display well before Lewis and Max lined up on the grid at Yas Marina.
The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) has been woefully inconsistent in applying the technical and sporting regulations for many years and that governance is coming in for very well-deserved criticism when race director Michael Masi panicked and took the worst possible solution out of the bad options that were available to him after the Latifi shunt.
Indeed, one of options that was suggested was to throw the red flag immediately which would have had the cars return to the pits and allowed them all to change tyres for a shootout should racing resume. Certainly, the previous grand prix in Saudi Arabia just the week prior had plenty of precedent for this with two red flags that were shown during the race after crashes.
Race control would likely argue that the red flags were necessary in Saudi Arabia given the limited sight lines on the Corniche Circuit in Jeddah where it was entirely possible that a driver would have no warning of a crash ahead of him given the twisty nature of that street circuit. But the Yas Marina Circuit does not have that problem of unsighted corners one right after the other and I can understand why Masi wouldn’t have chosen the red flag as his first option even though it would have led to the fairest possible resolution of the title between Lewis and Max.
Had he gone with that option, they would have been on equal tyres and so it becomes a question of who gets the better restart and can parlay that into a race victory. Given the season’s body of work, I don’t think any fans would have truly had a problem with whoever managed to come out on top in that scenario…it’s always much more satisfying to end the race whilst racing rather than behind the safety car.
Indeed, Christian Horner of Red Bull admitted as much that there’s an unwritten agreement that ending races under green is their preference and I’ve no doubt that conflict between the rules as written by the FIA and the entertainment value desired by Liberty Media which holds the commercial rights to F1 (itself an exceptionally unusual and arguably dysfunctional arrangement in sport) played quite a role in Michael Masi’s decision making process.
Had Masi stuck to the normal procedures governing unlapping cars and withdrawing the safety car, there’s no way they could have possibly have gone green except in the final corner where Lewis has control over the timing of the restart once the safety car enters the pit lane and even Max’s new softs couldn’t make up for that deficit in reaction time before they’d already be crossing the finish line.
I feel for both Lewis and Max here. Neither of them deserved to be in such a situation where the end result has more of a contrived feel to it much more like you’d see on a wrasslin’ show rather than a worthy end to an epic racing campaign by both supremely talented drivers.
Regardless of who you support between them, there is always going to be the pall of uncertainty and doubt over the result.
Given the circumstances of how dominant Lewis was during the race only to have victory snatched away, I’ll give him and his father mad props for being far more gracious about congratulating Max than I’d ever imagine anyone capable of being. Yes, the radio message came out where Lewis said that the result had been manipulated but all in all, I think he’s been gracious in what for now is a defeat not knowing what the result of the Mercedes appeal against the steward’s decision will be.
The question is where do we go from here?
I’ve no doubt that even if Mercedes do follow through with their threat to appeal the steward’s rejection, I honestly can’t see the FIA reversing the result of the race even when it was arrived at by less than savoury means.
Indeed as Toto was on the radio screaming at Masi about “this isn’t right!”, I immediately had this vision of Jo Galloway’s objection in “A Few Good Men”:
Your Honor, we re-new our objection
to Commander Stone’s testimony, and
ask that it be stricken from the
record. And we further ask that the
Court instruct the jury to lend no
weight to this witness’s testimony.
The objection’s overruled, counsel.
Sir, the defense strenuously objects
and requests a meeting in chambers
so that his honor might have an
opportunity to hear discussion before
ruling on the objection.
The objection of the defense has
been heard and overruled.
Noted. The witness is an expert and
the court will hear his opinion.
Mercedes appealing the decision of the FIA to…the FIA!
One can’t help but imagine the end result going to be much like Sam Weinberg’s analysis of Jo’s strategy…
I strenuously object? Is that how it
works? Objection. Overruled. No, no,
no, no, I strenuously object. Oh,
well if you strenuously object, let
me take a moment to reconsider.
The FIA can’t afford to let the hypothetical (at this point) Mercedes appeal on violations of the lapped cars and withdrawal of the safety car sporting regulations stand after their appointed stewards binned the initial protest by essentially saying that even though 48.12 wasn’t implemented fully, 48.13 and 15.3 contradict 48.12 and that’s at the race director’s discretion.
I’m pretty sure there are intense discussions going on right now behind the scenes between Mercedes and the FIA where they’ll find some sort of “Ferrari Solution” (when Ferrari were found to violate the technical regs and run an illegal engine that the FIA couldn’t conclusively prove was dodgy so a settlement was reached that we still don’t know what the terms were!) that will be kept strictly confidential and I imagine it’ll be a few million euro in damages for the lost prize money for the driver’s world championship and future considerations.
I can’t see Mercedes pursuing this appeal further…it’s just not done unless you’re really stupid (HAAS!) and it almost never succeeds. I’m sure the FIA will figure out Toto’s price for silence and meet it…it’s what they’ve always done because it always works.
And Mercedes will be forced to issue a statement accepting the status quo because they’re not going to want to be seen as sore losers further damaging the already damaged F1 brand.
And that brings me back to the original point of all of this…we should be celebrating one of the most exciting seasons in recent memory between two of the best drivers the sport has ever seen. And had it been settled fairly on the track between two equally matched competitors, we would be.
Instead we’re left with the most unpleasant taste of all and no confidence that the FIA or Liberty Media have the faintest clue how to fix this mess or indeed any inkling they actually will want to.
It’ll be interesting to see if the radio traffic between the teams and race control will be available on the world feed in the upcoming season. I have a sneaking suspicion it will be quietly dumped into the bin because of all the dirty little secrets we always knew were going on behind the scenes were laid bare for the world to see. And if truth be told, the unwarranted and despicable abuse of Michael Masi who has the most thankless job in all of Formula 1.
I really feel for him…it’s clear he’s had nowhere near the support Charlie Whiting had in that role and he desperately needs the help because being race director alone is a full-time job, much less all of the other roles he fills.
I truly believe he’s taken the decisions he has in the interest of safety first and I don’t believe the BS I’ve been reading these last couple of days he was at all bent and dodgy for one minute.
Has his decisions and those of the stewards been woefully inconsistent throughout the season. Yes.
Has he been pushed round by the teams more than he ought to? Certainly. Had Toto or Christian pulled some of their stunts over the radio with Uncle Charlie, I’d think they’d been told right off and sent to sit with the stewards for a couple of races to see how easy the job is. We certainly have had precedent in that when Sebastian Vettel dropped a more than a few F-bombs on Charlie Whiting’s headset and got put on the naughty step for it.
Is his role as race director in jeopardy? Probably and were he to be sacked I’d think it a bit harsh. He’s doing the best he can with contradictory regulations (technical and sporting), unwritten directives outside the regulations, and trying to herd 20 drivers across 10 teams through the grand prix weekend without killing themselves or others.
Charlie Whiting was legendary in that role and it’s not fair to compare Michael Masi to him. Charlie also had far more support throughout the organisation to delegate some of his many roles that Masi hasn’t been able to do.
Whilst they’re at it, the FIA really needs to rethink the role of the stewards which is three people nominated by the FIA (with one being a former F1 driver since 2010) with a FIA licence/superlicence and one is a national of the host country. Even though they’re supposedly qualified by the FIA to adjudicate conflicts in racing , it seems that you almost have to be a barrister to be able to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis that is the sporting and technical regulations which we’ve seen are contradictory and open to interpretation.
With the inconsistency we’ve seen just in the past few races concerning penalties for pushing a competitor of the track…or non-penalties…the question has to be asked if the stewards are truly up to the task. A rotating cast of characters in that room from weekend to weekend isn’t necessarily going to have the benefit of consistency through the season which just leads to more distrust and recrimination and wondering if the competition is being fairly regulated.
Or maybe there isn’t such wonder about fair regulation in a sport that pays Ferrari for, well, being Ferrari and FIA is taken to be “Ferrari International Assistance”.
At any rate, I do congratulate Max on one hell of a season and a championship that was ultimately earned by taking advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves. Regardless of the stupidity of the FIA, he truly is a worthy champion and I’ve no doubt this is the first of what will be many titles for him.
I just hope that he’s actually allowed to enjoy his next one without all of the drama from the FIA. 🙁