It’s only fitting that the fight for the 2021 Formula 1 World Championship came down to the wire, which makes what took place in Abu Dhabi all the more unsatisfying.
Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, after a season of close calls, collisions, protests and general acrimony, found themselves one-two heading into the final lap of the final race of the season.
Both drivers had shown over the course of 22 hard-fought races that they were deserving of the title. Unfortunately for F1, what was a dream scenario served up another batch of fresh controversy, with race director Michael Masi’s decision-making leaving drivers and fans confused and frustrated.
When Nicholas Latifi crashed at Turn 14 and the Safety Car was deployed with six laps remaining, few could have guessed how the remaining laps would play out, or the backlash that came with it.
Masi and his decision-making have been key in the 2021 title fight, but his latest involvement has somewhat soured what was a classic F1 season. Red Bull and Verstappen fans likely won’t care, especially since the Dutchman made it clear he felt hard done by some of the decisions leading up to Sunday’s season finale.
Clarification needed at very least
What is certain is that F1 has some work to do to clear up what exactly took place at the Yas Marina Circuit. Masi’s decisions to not let lapped cars unlap themselves, before going back on his decision and letting five of the eight lapped cars through, has to be clarified.
Masi’s desire to have green flag racing decide the championship, while honourable, shouldn’t come at the expense of the sport’s integrity. Make no mistakes about it, what we saw on Sunday was unprecedented, and one can only hope future world title fights aren’t decided in similar fashion.
When the decision not to let lapped cars through was initially made, Red Bull were on the radio complaining to race control. After that, it was Mercedes’ turn to voice their disapproval after Masi changed his mind and allowed the five lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen, but not the other three, to go through.
As confusing as it was for viewers at home and fans in attendance, it was just as perplexing for the drivers taking part in the race.
Lando Norris, one of the drivers allowed to unlap himself, admitted afterwards that he was surprised at the decision.
“I didn’t actually know it was only the first few, up to Max,” Norris told The Race. “So it was obviously made to be a fight, it was for the TV of course, it was for the result.
“To suddenly do it just for the final lap and for a one-lap shootout, I’m a bit surprised.”
Norris‘ McLaren Teammate Daniel Ricciardo was just as surprised: “I’m honestly a bit speechless. I don’t know what to make of all that.”
Ferrari teammates Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz described the decision as “weird” and “very strange”. It also led to an inevitable outcome, as Verstappen’s new soft tyres were always going to give him an advantage over Hamilton given Mercedes opted against bringing the seven-time world champion in for fresh rubber.
Given Masi’s role as race director is to ensure the race is run in a safe and fair manner rather than provide entertainment, it’s a shame the latter looks to have been the priority rather than the former.
Protests and fallout
After the race, Mercedes filed two protests – one against the classification established at the end of the competition based on the Safety Car protocol not being followed, and one against Verstappen overtaking Hamilton behind the Safety Car ahead of the restart.
While both were thrown out by the stewards, it isn’t over just yet. Mercedes have already lodged an intention to appeal, which gives them 96 hours to put a case together. If it is deemed admissible, it will be put in front of the FIA’s International Court of Appeal and we could possibly see action at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
It means Verstappen is the World Champion, but with an asterisk for the time being. It’s exactly the kind of scenario F1 and its fans were hoping to avoid – one of the greatest seasons of all time being decided away from the track.
Unfortunately, it’s exactly the kind of conclusion F1 deserves. Masi and race control have been the third challenger in the title fight all season, but his decision to pick and choose which rules to apply were never under the microscope as much as they were on Sunday.
Regardless of your allegiance to Hamilton or Verstappen, one can only hope F1 clears up their rule book in order to ensure we never get a repeat of Sunday’s last-lap sprint as the sport, along with its competitors and fans, deserve better.