So many rules, so little time.
Did the FIA make the right or the wrong decision in Abu Dhabi?
A season filled with more storylines and drama than a reality TV show that follows declining celebrities was capped off with a decision that appears to have sent F1 fans new and old into a cyclone of debate more suited to a dating programme. Many won't need to be reminded of the incident, but for the benefit of those that were orbiting the earth on the I.S.S at the time, we'll give a quick recap. After a long race it appeared that despite Redbull's and Max Verstappen's best attempts, Mercedes were soon to cross the line with another double championship. Cue a safety car, a nail-biting couple of laps in which Redbull threw a last gasp pitstop at Verstappen with nothing to lose and it appeared we may be about to end a tremendous season with the damp squib of a safety car taking a procession of vehicles over the finishing line. The race director, with a lap and a half left, and having to deal with more calls than a customer service agent at the DVLA, seemed desperate to pause for breath to make a decision what to do. Precious seconds ticked away and with each rotation of the safety car's wheel eliminating options a fateful call was made. The unlapped cars between the two cars at the front, Hamilton in First and Verstappen in Second, were to unlap themselves. We were now down to just a third of the track left of the penultimate lap. Immediately after this message, the safety car was told to return to the pits before the end of the lap, leaving one more lap left in the event with a completely 'green' track for everyone to go racing on. Opinions, racing caps, and team principals began flying through the air. Verstappen on much fresher and faster soft compound tyres made his move early, turn 5 taken confidently. The move was completed, and after holding on for the rest of the lap against Hamilton with his very worn hard compound tyres giving little to fight back with, Verstappen took the chequered flag and with it the World Driver's Championship.
The word 'robbery' began echoing through one selection of fans whilst cheers erupted from the other, but what had really happened?
Mercedes, somewhat disappointedly, had brought a barrister to Abu Dhabi. It appears they had entered the weekend with a slightly cynical view on the events and believed having the strongest and toughest legal representation available was necessary. Far be it from any of us to judge them for this, although in sport there is an element of 'good faith' that is traditionally needed, the decision to bring one of the best legal minds you can lay your hands on before a wheel is turned would seem a little counter to this approach.
Aside from the representation, it was of no surprise to anyone watching or the media assembled that Mercedes were launching a protest the second the Redbull celebrations began. It appeared the driver's world championship would be finalised in a room of people arguing over specific words rather than with the wheel-to-wheel action all fans, no matter their allegiance, would prefer to see.
The Protest -
In short, Mercedes believed that article 48.12 and had been broken and as a result, Lewis Hamilton had been deliberately disadvantaged. Essentially, cars that had been lapped by the leaders should all unlap themselves before the race restarts, as is generally witnessed unless it is not safe to do so, or the race finishes whilst the safety car is still controlling the track as the incident is not clear.
The Defence -
Redbull argued that the specific article being referred to used the word 'any' and not 'all' lapped cars should unlap themselves, arguing the two are not the same and so there was no breach of the rule. They also pointed out that the safety car is essentially the race director's to do what and as he likes with. The race director wields total power over the safety car use and so this overrides Mercedes claim.
The Result -
After deliberation, it was decided that Redbull's defence was stronger than Mercedes protest and so it was ruled there would be no change to the final standing.
Here is where many race fans have begun to battle in what appears to have been a season-long war of words about F1 team actions, their racing techniques, and the legality of their designs. Many felt that if the race can be ruled on the decision of one person, who can act as they please with impunity, that this isn't really a sport, instead it is a show, crafted for maximum drama. Those indifferent to the squabbles at the front may shrug and ask for someone to point to a particular era of F1 that wasn't like this. Many decisions have been made by the FIA, the owners of F1, and teams that would appear to break the rules they create to give the desired result. Those believing controversy is new to F1 may wish to watch the 2007 season, or the 1989 season, not to mention 1997 or 1990, to name a few. We have seen crashes, penalties, and dubious judgements throughout 2021, the result of flash decisions needing to be made quickly and with the least hindrance to a race restart.
The FIA, the race director, and the teams.
An area that has missed out of most discussion about the decision to restart the race and the circumstances surrounding is written in the protest paperwork, shamefully, many have chosen to ignore it because taking a side and stubbornly repeating one message or another seems to gain more tractions than investigating the angle that appears to have played the most significant role in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The race director was asked to give evidence to support his decision. In this, we don't see an attempt to push an outcome, but someone that was boxed in from every angle, under huge time pressure, and desperate to find a decision that was most consistent with what the racing teams had requested not just before the race but before the season.
Before we open this can of worms a reminder that the 2021 Belgian Grand Prix was run for a minimum length behind the safety car so as to have a classification. Options for a race start the next day, or earlier were out of the question, and so fans watched around the globe as cars sat their garages with wet tyres and waited for the dark clouds to grow ever darker. Few, if any fans (with the exception of George Russell's fan club) were content with the race result, a finish under the safety car, half points all round, and not a single second of racing. Afterwards, teams echoed their previous request to the FIA, 'wherever possible, let us race.'
Fast forward to the final race of the season, a decision must be made immediately, unlapping all lapped cars will likely not leave enough time to pull the safety car in before the last lap commences. All types of restarts can be dreamed up, but none can happen without a clear breach of the rules. One option begins to open up and from the evidence provided by Michael Masi, the race director, and it appears to have sealed a snap decision. If only the cars that could interfere with a final result for the championship unlap themselves, and the safety car is ordered in immediately, then the most important tenet of this season's racing could be respected. The race could end on a 'green' track, or to put it another way, the race would end with cars racing each other. It should be stressed that all teams wanted this prior to the season, they implored the race director, if there is the possibility to just let us race, then do it. In Belgium that appeared not to carry enough weight against the weather, even as driver's started to claim the conditions were drivable, those that remember the loss of Anthoine Hubert at the Spa-Francorchamps track in the 2019 F2 race will understand why the race director refused to make the call to get racing underway, a serious accident, or a death would be an intolerable outcome by the entire F1 community if something went wrong.
Many will argue that this may have some validity, but simply isn't fair, and that the sport relies on rules so that it can be considered competition, rather than an entertainment show that is rigged one way or the other. Unfortunately, sport is a paradox of fairness. Just this season alone we have witnessed race leaders miss out on the podium because of weather, blown tyres, and mechanical issue. It is never fair when someone losses out or gains through no fault or achievement of their own, especially when the very people supposedly keeping the playing field level appear to be able to tilt it when they want. Then again, an argument could be made that ultimately the best strategy won the race, both teams have called the race director this season and said the words 'that is a let them race' scenario. Any strategist must have some inclination that the 'let them race' ethos was going to come into play so late into a race, Redbull took a chance because they could, pitting for soft tyres. Hamilton could have done the same, but it would have been an incredibly brave decision to lose track position, and likely only one man at Mercedes would make the call to pit. We have seen this before, the team behind is able to take a risk because they have nothing to lose, it is an aspect of motor racing that puts the hearts in the mouths of fans, and yet we can't avert our eyes.
So, when the dust has settled, did the FIA make a right or wrong decision? It is easy to claim it is wrong and that a rule has been broken, however, after assessing the exact wording and wadding through the mud a few clear challenges can be settled. Does 'any' mean 'all', possibly, in a courtroom English professors would be brought in as expert witnesses for both sides, one would no doubt argue that their understanding is yes, whilst another would doubtlessly say no. In racing any ambiguity in the wording is taken advantage of, that is the sport and it has led to some truly interesting cars. So if it doesn't say 'all' it is open to interpretation in racing, and so this section has not been clearly breached.
So what about the last part of Mercedes appeal for regulation 48.12, here is how it is written,
'once the last lapped car has passed the leader the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap'.
Certainly here it is more clear cut, this was not followed, a clear breach, Mercedes appeal was also based on this not being followed. It is unquestionable. So did they make a wrong decision? Sadly, that isn't quite the end of the story, like a creature from the depths that has been fought off by the world's militaries in a Hollywood blockbuster, this beast has not been slain yet. As in any sport, some rules and regulations run into others, there are also circumstances that result in unforeseen circumstances leaving the authority with little choice but to make a decision without clear guidance. In F1, the rule that runs straight into the wording of 48.12 is (try to stay awake the good bits are coming) regulation 15.3, essentially this gives the race director the ability to use the safety car however they like. This does make sense, it means that during a sudden rainstorm it can be ordered out, during a small crash with no injuries but with a car in a position the race director is uncomfortable with, it can be used. It is also open to abuse as technically the race director could order the safety car to start and finish every race of the entire season. It wouldn't be much fun to watch and it would be unlikely they would find themselves in gainful employment the next season, but it is possible. This regulation appears to nullify any others that may otherwise impact the use of the safety car. This is why the appeal was not upheld and why the FIA can look at this and say that as the rules of the sport exist, none were actually broken by the race director.
Finally, the unwritten agreement of 'let them race' appears to have struck a chord with the FIA, whether it be because of the attention of new fans from Netflix, because of decisions in previous seasons appearing to overly control the event, or because if you have to make a decision that you know is controversial, best to make it in the echo of what everyone has demanded. Regardless of the reason, we are left in a situation where two great racing drivers have finished the last event of the season racing each other. Some may not like how we got there, having heard that all teams wanted this, maybe we should all agree that we won't always see eye-to-eye on the circumstances but the majority of times the outcome suits the overall performance of the competitors. Hamilton is a seven-time world champion, a master at driving a Formula 1 car, and one of the best tactically minded drivers to turn a wheel on a racetrack. Verstappen has long been a rising star, mixing an all-or-nothing driving style with a one-lap pace that is rarely seen even by elite racing drivers. Both have found themselves the recipient of some poor luck, on track incidents, and controversial overtaking manoeuvres that have ended their race. In the end, the driver that has led more laps than all 19 other competitors combined, 469 laps for max vs 465 laps combined for all other drivers (including Hamilton), and had ten pole positions to Hamiltons five, won the world driver's championship. Call it luck, call it interference, or call it as it is, F1 and its teams got what it asked for, and it resulted in the driver with this season's best performance winning the championship. No question Hamilton will feel incredibly hard done by, but his gracious acceptance of defeat was a measure of not just his character but his ability to accept the season's result as a whole.
It should be noted the race director is responsible for much more than just the on track events during a race weekend. It is a role that requires daily decisions about upcoming events and how each and every race will take place both safely and competitively. It is a hefty burden for one person, one that Charlie Whiting may have fooled us all into thinking was easier than it is. Michael Masi has certainly made some questionable calls that have both benefited and disadvantaged different drivers, but would he want to 'fix' a race? would he risk his career just to scupper one driver? That is for you to decide but we should all remember the incredible job done by the FIA week in and week out to make the sport we enjoy happen. What really has shown is how little support the race director appears to have on a race weekend due to lack of personnel and teams seemingly calling them incessantly like a teenager that has found a naughty hotline to hear what he's wearing. It's a tough job, maybe more people should share the burden.