ABU DHABI — Dressed in a t-shirt proudly pronouncing Max Verstappen as the 2021 world champion, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner marched towards the stewards’ office on Sunday night to defend the very slogan stamped across his chest.
Just four hours earlier, Horner had stood on the Abu Dhabi podium celebrating Verstappen’s first world title. In normal circumstances he would have been walking down the red carpet at one of Red Bull’s legendary after parties by this time, but as the clock crept towards 11 PM the champagne was still on ice.
Throughout the weekend jokes had been cracked about how this year’s epic title battle between Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton was destined to be decided in the stewards’ office. At the previous three races in Brazil, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the stewards — F1’s rotating panel of referees — had played some part in the outcome of the race or its qualifying session, with further incidents peppered throughout earlier rounds in the season. But the assumption was that the stewards would be ruling on an incident between the two drivers, not the actions of the FIA’s own race director, Michael Masi.
As he walked towards the stewards, Horner was flanked by Red Bull’s long-time technical director Adrian Newey and the team’s sporting director Jonathan Wheatley. All three wore serious faces for the numerous cameramen backpedalling in front of them. All three looked ready for a fight.
Moments later, Mercedes’ representation turned up. Engineering director Andrew Shovlin was accompanied by team manager Ron Meadows and Mercedes’ legal counsel, Paul Harris QC. Their stride was no less purposeful, but by arriving just after Red Bull they avoided the focus of the camera lenses and glare of the flashlights, slipping relatively unnoticed through the automatic doors guarding the stewards’ office.
By this point of the evening both teams had put their cases forward to the stewards over the events leading up to the dramatic final lap that decided the title. In a remarkable turn of events, Verstappen had passed Hamilton with less than two miles of the 2021 world championship left to run, but his ability to do so had hinged on a controversial decision by Masi. Unsurprisingly, given the nature of the way this year’s championship has been fought, Mercedes protested the result. Now, the two teams were returning to the stewards to hear whether the result of the race could be overturned and consider their next steps.
After a long ten minutes the doors to the stewards’ office slid open again and the Mercedes trio emerged.
No comment was given. No word on the outcome.
A further five minutes passed before Horner, Newey and Wheatley emerged with facemasks covering what appeared to be the slightest of smiles. Again no comment.
But as the Red Bull bosses made their way back down the paddock, pursued by camera men and reporters a single cheer rang out from one of the hospitality units. Moments later a collective ping of journalists’ phones echoed around the paddock, confirming news from Red Bull’s head of communications in a simple message: “Protest NOT upheld.”
As Horner got closer to Red Bull’s hospitality, louder cheers and applauds built up. Suddenly, tens of team members emerged to greet the returning team bosses, including Verstappen himself.
Just as he had been throughout the race, Verstappen was calm and relaxed. Wearing shorts and a team shirt he politely picked a path through the media scrum outside the hospitality unit, giving nothing more than a couple of words to the cameras as he made his way to the team’s garage entrance. As he entered the garage his mechanics fired up their sound system with Queen’s ‘We are the champions’ turned up to 11.
For the second time in one evening, Verstappen had been crowned world champion.
An appeal of a protest
And yet, technically speaking, it’s not over yet. Just as a dominant boxer might posture in the ring before the results are declared by the judges, Red Bull and Verstappen celebrated the stewards’ decision knowing there was still a slither of a chance it may not be final.
Within 30 minutes of the news that the protest had fallen flat, Mercedes confirmed the inevitable and lodged its intention to appeal the decision. Lodging an intention to appeal gives a team 96 hours to form a case, which, if deemed admissible, is put in front of the FIA’s International Court of Appeal. Mercedes may still withdraw its appeal, but for now Verstappen is a world champion with an asterisk.
A title decider unworthy of two champions
Arguably it was the worst way in which Formula One could crown a new champion. On a day when F1 held the attention of the entire sporting world, it presented an unflattering version of itself, tied up in byzantine regulations that were incorrectly enforced. Sure there was last lap drama, but at what cost?
To make matters worse, this had nothing to do with the drivers or teams involved. Verstappen and Red Bull raced hard to remain in contention throughout the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and the fact they were in a position to take advantage of the situation at the end was credit to both driver and team for rolling the dice over and over again when it looked like all hope was lost.
Make no mistake, Verstappen is a worthy world champion and it wouldn’t seem right to strip him of his title at this stage … yet there is no denying that Mercedes has a very good argument.
What went wrong?
The crux of the issue was not how the final lap shootout played out, with Verstappen lunging past Hamilton at Turn 5, but the events that led up to it. On lap 53 of 58, Nicholas Latifi crashed into the barriers under the glitzy W Hotel causing a safety car. Since making Hamilton’s sole pit stop on lap 15, Mercedes had spent the next 38 laps hoping such an eventuality wouldn’t unfold, but here it was.
Given the positioning of Hamilton and Verstappen on track, it meant Mercedes could not use the opportunity to pit Hamilton for fresh tyres. Had the team done so, it would have handed the lead directly to Verstappen with the risk that the race ended under the safety car and Verstappen was crowned champion as a result of Mercedes’ decision to pit.
For Red Bull the decision to pit had no such complications as there was simply nothing to lose. If Verstappen pitted he would gain a performance advantage over Hamilton from the fresh tyres if the race restarted but would still hold second place when he rejoined the track. He would lose track position to five lapped cars, but at the time that wasn’t a concern as the rules said all lapped cars would unlap themselves if the race got back underway. That would give Verstappen a clear shot at passing Hamilton in the remaining laps (or lap as it turned out) thanks to the performance advantage of his new tyres.
Once Hamilton had decided to stay out and Verstappen had made his stop for fresh tyres, the title contenders formed part of a snaking tail of F1 cars behind the safety car. It was just before that time that the situation dawned on Hamilton. “[Censored], I can’t box,” he told his race engineer Peter Bonnington.
“Negative,” Bonnington replied.
Hamilton’s response to that message was entirely censored for bad language.
On lap 54 of 58 while still behind the safety car, Bonnington laid out the facts to his driver.
“Situation is: Verstappen has pitted, he had a free pit stop, but we would have lost track position to him [if we pitted]. Four laps remaining when you cross the line. This field has to bunch and then we have to send lapped cars through, so this may not restart.”
“Is he right behind me?” Hamilton asked.
“He will be once they have sorted out the order. This will take a while to sort out.”
“With new tyres?”
“Copy, Lewis. We would have lost track position if we had pitted.”
With three laps left, race control broke from its usual protocol to inform the teams that lapped cars would not be allowed to unlap themselves. Although it wasn’t said at the time, this was an attempt to get racing back underway as soon as possible so that the title could be decided with a racing lap rather than behind the safety car.
The decision was hugely controversial as it meant five cars would be between Hamilton and Verstappen at the restart, ruining any chance Verstappen had of taking advantage of his fresh tyres to pass Hamilton. Just a handful of laps earlier, Verstappen had picked his way through the same gaggle of cars and lost a couple of seconds to Hamilton, so there was no chance he could clear all five of them in one lap and pass Hamilton.
Even with blue flags to tell the lapped cars to move out the way, Verstappen would likely have caught Hamilton at the end of the lap when any chance of a pass would be limited by the tight final sector. Verstappen’s engineer, Gianpiero Lambiase, broke the news to his driver.
“Lapped cars will not be allowed to overtake,” Lambiase said.
“Yeah of course, typical decision,” Verstappen responded.
Lambiase: “It’s classic.”
Verstappen: “I’m not surprised.”
At this point, Horner weighed in, but instead of talking to his driver, he opened a radio channel directly to race director Michael Masi, who had made the call to abandon the usual procedure.
Horner: “Michael, it’s Christian.”
Masi: “Yes, go ahead.”
Horner: “Why aren’t we getting these lapped cars out of the way?”
Masi, who sounded flustered as he juggled the radio call with monitoring the removal of Latifi’s car from the track, added: “Just give me … because Christian … just give me a second. My main big one is to get this incident clear.”
Horner: “You only need one racing lap.”
Then, against any precedent for a safety car restart in F1 history, Masi decided the five cars between Hamilton and Verstappen would be allowed to unlap themselves while the rest of the lapped cars further down the order would remain in place. It satisfied Horner’s request for a shootout between the top two drivers but made a mockery of the sport from third position back.
Two lapped cars were still stuck between Verstappen in second place and Carlos Sainz in third and one was left between Valtteri Bottas and Yuki Tsunoda further down the order. What’s more Daniel Ricciardo, who had pitted under the safety car for the same reasons as Verstappen, lost a lap to all the cars he had hoped to fight with on his fresh tyres.
The FIA did not properly explain the decision after the race, but it seems Masi made the call to speed up the end of the safety car and facilitate a head-to-head fight between Hamilton and Verstappen on the final lap regardless of what happened further back. While that was great from an entertainment point of view, it is hugely problematic.
Masi’s job as race director is not to provide entertainment on a Sunday but instead to provide a safe and fair race by running the event to the FIA’s sporting regulations. By having lapped cars between Sainz and Verstappen but no lapped cars between Verstappen and Hamilton, for example, Verstappen was being treated differently to Sainz and given a significant advantage. It also led to an inevitable championship outcome as Verstappen’s new soft tyres were always going to give him a performance advantage over Hamilton on 43-lap old hard tyres to allow him to attempt an overtake.
What’s more, Masi not only had to fudge the part of the rules around cars unlapping themselves, he also had to bring forward the restart by a single lap, ignoring another part of the same rule (Article 48.12) that states the restart should occur the lap after the last of the lapped cars has unlapped itself. If that procedure had played out in full, even with just the five cars unlapping themselves, the safety car would not have been able to enter the pits until the end of the final lap, meaning there would not have been time for a full lap of racing and Verstappen’s overtake.
While it’s true that no-one wanted to see the championship end under a safety car, it happened in 2012 when Sebastian Vettel beat Fernando Alonso to the title in Brazil and no one questioned that decision then. But it’s also true that Masi wasn’t the race director back then.
In tweaking the rules to fit the occasion, Masi left the sport on shaky ground. On a day when the focus should have been kept solely on the two drivers fighting for the championship, it was turned on him through his own actions.
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff was understandably livid.
“Michael, this isn’t right,” he said he said over the Mercedes/FIA radio channel at the start of the final lap.
When Verstappen passed Hamilton, he added: “No Michael! No Michael, no! That was so not right!”
Yet the most remarkable exchange over the radiowaves came after the race when Wolff finally got a response from Masi.
Wolff said, “You need to reinstate the lap before, that’s not right.”
Masi responded: “Toto, it’s called a motor race.”
Wolff: “I’m sorry?”
Masi: “We went car racing.”
In response to Mercedes’ protest, the stewards used another rule (Article 15.3 of the Sporting Regulations) to defend Masi’s decision to let just five cars unlap themselves. The rule states that the race director shall have “overriding authority” on the “the use of the safety car”, meaning he can override rules if he sees fit. While that may be understandable for safety reasons, this was for sporting reasons and literally changed the rules from one lap to the next. Mercedes could quite reasonably argue that it would have pitted Hamilton at the start of the safety car period if it had known Masi could change the procedure to bring the safety car in early.
The stewards also cited Article 48.13 to explain why the safety car seemingly came in a lap too early. The Article states that once the message “safety car in this lap” has been displayed, as it was on lap 57 by race control, it is mandatory to bring the safety car back into the pits, therefore overriding the provision to leave a lap between the final car unlapping itself and the race getting back underway.
The question remains whether, in his role as race director, Masi’s priority should have been to provide the spectacle that was lap 58 of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix or to protect the sport from protests and controversy by following the FIA’s own procedures. Put simply, is Masi’s job to ensure an entertainment spectacle or a sporting spectacle?
Regardless of your allegiance to either driver or team, Masi’s decision to pick and choose which rules should be applied was not a fitting way to see a champion crowned. It should take nothing away from Verstappen’s remarkable achievement, but it does colour his first title in a way that is not fair on Verstappen or the sport.
The Red Bull driver had no control over how the race was run and simply took the opportunity to pass Hamilton on the final lap when it presented itself. By his own admission there was a big dose of luck involved in Sunday’s race, but he quite rightly point to examples of bad luck in Hungary, where he was taken out at the start by Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas, and his tyre failure at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix while leading the race as examples of how the pendulum can swing.
Hamilton would also have been a worthy champion had Masi let the race end under the safety car, but there’s little doubt that that decision would also have courted controversy. What’s more the focus would also have swung back to the opening lap when the stewards decided not to penalise Hamilton for skipping Turn 7 while defending the lead from Verstappen.
But there is a positive in all this for Formula One in that those same two worthy champions will return to the track to do battle again next year. In the meantime, the FIA must look closely at its own regulations and the way in which they are enforced to ensure such an end to a championship is never possible again.