Last lap: On close races fought at Formula One

Close races are good for Formula One, but not those decided behind closed doors

Updated - December 14, 2021 10:25 am IST

Published - December 14, 2021 12:02 am IST

In what was one of the most closely fought Formula One World Championships for the drivers’ title, 24-year-old Max Verstappen from the Netherlands became the sport’s latest champion in a breathtaking season finale at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday. The Dutchman driving for Red Bull Racing achieved the feat by overtaking his title-rival, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, on the last lap of the last race of the year in controversial circumstances. Going into the weekend, both drivers had exactly 369.5 points, meaning whoever finished ahead would take the title, a scenario last seen in 1974. Ever since he made his debut as a 17-year-old in 2015, the youngest in the sport’s history, Verstappen has been tipped as a champion in waiting. Widely seen as a generational talent, in his sixth year in the sport, he finally had a car that could compete against Hamilton who has won the last four titles. This season, Verstappen was brutally consistent with 10 race wins and eight second-place finishes out of 22 races. Meanwhile, Hamilton was going for a record eighth drivers’ title, a feat that would have put him ahead of the great Michael Schumacher. For the first 54 laps, it seemed the British driver had the eighth title in his bag after beating pole-sitter Verstappen at the start and controlling the race with almost a 10-second lead.

Four laps from the end, a crash for Williams driver Nicholas Latifi, brought in the safety car that nullified Hamilton’s lead. On the penultimate lap of a 58-lap race, officials from the sport’s governing body, Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), made two decisions that worked to Verstappen’s advantage. Racing resumed for the last lap allowing Verstappen, now on Hamilton’s tail, to attack his rival and pass him to seal the win. The Mercedes team protested the classification of results arguing right procedures were not followed before the race was resumed on the last lap. But in a late-night decision, race stewards dismissed the team’s protests, formally confirming the Dutchman’s first world title. Mercedes has lodged an intent to appeal the stewards’ decision and has three days to decide whether it wants to take it to the FIA’s International Court of Appeal. The controversy has cast a long shadow over what has been one of the closest seasons in recent times with both Verstappen and Hamilton evenly matched. The ad hoc manner in which race officials conducted the final moments of the race has left a sour note, with the final result being decided behind closed doors and still subject to change. The governing body desperately needs to address these inconsistencies before the next year lest it loses the trust of fans as a fair arbiter.

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