Formula 1 has got its grand finale. The world championship duel between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton was only decided in the last lap. And yet a bland aftertaste lingers. Not just because Mercedes protested. But mainly because the race management was put under pressure.
For 21 races, the rights holders could hardly believe their luck. Formula 1 wrote headlines non-stop. On and off the race track. With epic duels between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton. With the dispute between Red Bull and Mercedes. One controversy followed another in this crazy season.
This only made the hardcore fans even hotter and attracted new ones. After seven years of Mercedes dominance, there was another full season of intense competition at the top. Red Bull drove Mercedes ahead of them for 259 days, finally defeating the Dominator in the final battle. At its best in the hybrid era, Ferrari always ran out of air prematurely.
The World Championship rivals went neck and neck into the 22nd and final race - after 6,103 kilometers of racing. But even before the showdown in Abu Dhabi, the premier class was moving on the border between sport and show. She capped the madness with a final in the last lap. Only the 1,297 round of the season should determine the new world champion. Max Verstappen overtook Lewis Hamilton at 6,405 kilometers from 6,409. Totally crazy. And yet afterwards we mainly talk about the decisions made around the green table, instead of the world-class performances of the two drivers and the respective teams.
Mercedes sees two fouls
It came as it had to come when the mood is so heated, sometimes even poisoned. The winner was determined in stoppage time as Mercedes felt duped by the safety car's withdrawal for the final lap. The series winner would have preferred to cruise to the finish. But then, with the exception of the Hamilton and Mercedes fans, everyone would have booed in the stands and stepped into their televisions at home.
Mercedes saw two fouls. One from Verstappen and one from the race organizers themselves. Both times the stewards rejected the protest. In the first case, Mercedes protested because Verstappen had his Red Bull's nose ahead of Hamilton's Mercedes for milliseconds on the penultimate lap before and after turn twelve. Overtaking is prohibited under Safety Car.
Red Bull argued that its pilot was never really up front and that there were a million precedents of cars pulling next to each other under Safety Car and then falling back. The sports commissioners followed this reasoning. Verstappen was only briefly ahead in a phase where both accelerated and braked again. That can happen.Of course, the Dutchman wanted to be as close as possible to launch a final attack. Mercedes had appealed to "common sense" after Brazil. The sports commissioners used it.
Article 48.13 outperforms 48.12
The second case was more tricky. Mercedes pointed the finger at Article 48.12 of the Sports Code. There it says, somewhat vaguely, that cars that have already been lapped may lap back under safety car instructions. However, only five pilots were allowed through and not all eight. As soon as the last lapped car has passed the leader, the safety car will head for the pit lane at the end of the following lap, the article continues. Means for Mercedes: At the end of the 58th lap – Hamilton would have won the race under the safety car and would have been the new, old world champion.
Red Bull countered that the paragraph would say nothing about "all" cars. But only "any". This can be translated from English with "every" but also with "any" cars. Very spongy, as I said, but not Red Bull's problem. The team of the new world champion argued that the race organizers had just decided to announce a restart for the last lap in the 57th lap. As stated in paragraph 48.13. This trumps paragraph 48.12. Race director Michael Masi saw it that way too.
The Stewards' verdict reads: "The Race Director explained that the purpose of Article 48.12 was to get rid of the lapped cars that would 'interfere' with the race between the leaders and that in his view Article 48.13 applies in this case. He also explained that all teams have long agreed that, if possible, it would be highly desirable for the race to finish at race pace rather than under the safety car." The race director has the right to decide about the safety car.
It is understandable that Mercedes is angry about the outcome. That emotions run high. That the horse can run away with you. Formula 1 is a sport. This is exactly why we want to see people with emotions. Which ones make mistakes and aren't robots without feelings. Especially since the set of rules is really not concrete here. Especially since Masi could have interpreted it differently. But if Mercedes really believed that the sports commissioners would shoot down their own association, their own race director, then that was a bit naïve.
Decisions in sport always have winners and losers. Some benefit you, others don't. One will always be happy, the other will feel disadvantaged. The stewards are just doing their job. And conscientiously. There's nothing wrong with rotating them depending on the Grand Prix. Then there are factual decisions. It's the same in other sports.In soccer, football, handball or basketball, it is not always the same referee who whistles.
Red Bull got it in Saudi Arabia. Mercedes in Abu Dhabi. Yes, the race management didn't always cut a happy figure. But the brawlers did their part by applying pressure in every possible situation. After accidents. After referee decisions. After every controversy. Mercedes and Red Bull didn't give each other anything this year.
I think Formula 1 has a problem that needs to be solved as soon as possible. New rules of conduct are needed. It is unacceptable that race control is put under pressure during a Grand Prix. For that I have to go back and tell the story again.
Team bosses report to Masi
Abu Dhabi had the usual procedure for 53 laps. Lewis Hamilton seemed to shatter all of Verstappen's hopes with a rocket launch. The winning machine already believed that it had won the eighth world title in a row with more than one hand. As in the previous races, Mercedes had the faster car over the distance. The seven-time world champion drove like a machine: fast and flawless. His opponent needed the help of his team-mate to get close to the Mercedes again.
Sergio Perez handicapped Hamilton for two laps. The lead of the Mercedes at the front evaporated from 9.7 to 1.7 seconds. Red Bull played with all tricks. There's nothing wrong with that when it's all or nothing. Hamilton said on the radio that the strolling Mexicans were driving dangerously in front of him. That too is understandable in the heat of the moment. Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff got involved and repeated the accusation. Race director Michael Masi let it bounce off him.
This objection from the Mercedes team boss was only a first taste. Wolff was to radio the race control three more times. Two of them in the final phase. Each time in an attempt to influence race control. Red Bulls team boss Christian Horner did the same. His team had already railed against a decision in the first lap that Hamilton would not have to cede the top spot to Verstappen. The commissioners looked at the case at Masi's request and made a decision. Since there is nothing to contradict during the race.
Exactly in these moments Formula 1 drifts. Netflix rubs hands. There is more than enough material for the next documentary about this groundbreaking season. But from the sport's point of view, it was too much of a good thing. During a race, team bosses are not allowed to influence the interpretation of the rules. Not at the start of the season, not in the middle of the season, not in the season finale - in no Grand Prix.
Masi needs better protection
The FIA and rights holders must intervene in this regard.It is unacceptable that the race directors are even addressed by the team bosses during the Grand Prix. Michael Masi and his colleagues have to be shielded. There can only be one employee per team who can make contact. The sports director/team manager is best because they should know the rules inside and out.
Wolff joined the first virtual safety car. He asked Masi not to send out a safety car. Antonio Giovinazzi was stranded in his Alfa Romeo with hydraulic damage shortly after halfway through the race. This gave the pursuer, in this case Verstappen, the opportunity for a second tire change. The hands of the Mercedes strategists were tied. They couldn't swap the lead for new tires. Otherwise Red Bull would not have stopped in the first place. A safety car would have been the killer from Mercedes' point of view.
On lap 53, Masi then had to respond with the real safety car. Nicholas Latifi threw his Williams into the guard rails in the third to last corner. Bernd Mayländer had to sit in front of the field so that the marshals could safely retrieve the car. Again Verstappen was able to stop without risk. This time to pick up the soft tires. Again, Hamilton and Mercedes' hands were tied. The ex-world champion had to hold out no matter what the hell on worn hard tyres.
Wolff: "That wasn't right"
Now a farce began that this Formula 1 season didn't deserve. First, Masi refused that eight pilots lap back. Smug comment between Verstappen and his race engineer: "It was clear, that's no surprise." Undertone: In this case, the FIA act again pro Mercedes.
Now team boss Horner intervened. "Michael, why don't we get the lapped ones out of the way?" The race director needed a little more time. For him, of course, the safe recovery of the accident car had the highest priority. In such situations he should not be distracted, otherwise the marshals could be endangered. When Masi then decided that Norris, Alonso, Ocon, Leclerc and Vettel were allowed to round back, but not Ricciardo, Stroll and Schumacher, Mercedes was of course dissatisfied.
Only the five cars between Hamilton and Verstappen were allowed to pass. The rest didn't, because otherwise it would have taken too long and the season under the safety car would have ended. To the displeasure of the rights holders and Red Bull, to the delight of Mercedes. But there should be one last round. Masi first made sure everything was safe and then made a sporting decision. Mercedes team boss Wolff foamed. "Michael, that's absolutely not right." He later repeated the radio message after Verstappen passed Hamilton. "Michael, that wasn't right."
Masi can't be a Whiting
Of course you have to understand the reactions of the team bosses.It was all or nothing, victory or defeat. Sometimes you lose your instincts and you quickly press a button to connect with the race control. On the other hand, this line should not exist at all. Masi has enough to do anyway. One imagined that all ten team bosses would contact him at the same time.
In general, I think: The race director needs two strong people next to him to relieve him. who support him. That cushion certain things. His predecessor, Charlie Whiting, had grown into this task. In a way, he grew up with Formula 1, and he got bigger with it step by step. Masi, on the other hand, was more or less thrown in at the deep end in 2019.
Whiting was a man who could do anything. Who always stayed cool. A walking F1 encyclopedia. But there is only one like that. You can't ask that of Masi. Yes, the Australian has been unlucky at one point or another this season. But there are also voices in the paddock who say that Whiting, who died in 2019, would have had a hard time in this heated atmosphere. The FIA must act. And the teams should also question themselves. Michael Masi has the hardest job in Formula 1. It is best for him to always make decisions immediately, and always settle at the same time. That can't work. All parties should bear this in mind.
But he himself should also show some toughness. For example in situations like in Baku, when after the Verstappen accident many pilots drove past with full guns. Just because a lot of people do it doesn't mean everyone shouldn't be punished. And if 19 pilots don't lift under double yellow, all penalties have to be imposed.