Going into the final race of the 2021 Formula One World Championship in Abu Dhabi, two drivers, Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, were tied on 369.5 points in the fight for the drivers’ title.
In a remarkable race on December 12 night, Verstappen won the title with a last-lap pass on Hamilton to win the Abu Dhabi GP under controversial circumstances.
With both drivers tied on points, Hamilton took the lead from pole-sitter Hamilton at the start of the race and was in complete control, keeping his rival at bay. The Red Bull driver was nearly 10-second laps behind Hamilton in second place. Everything looked fine for the British driver to become the first to win eight world titles beating Michael Schumacher’s record of seven titles.
What happened next?
Four laps before the end of the race, on lap 54, Williams driver Nicholas Latifi crashed into the barriers and the safety car was deployed to clear the debris.
Under the safety car period, all drivers must drive to a prescribed speed limit with no overtaking allowed and it bunches up the pack with Hamilton’s lead almost nullified. Verstappen in an opportunistic move stopped for new tyres during this period so that he would have a chance to attack if racing resumed.
However, there were five lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen. Usually, before racing resumes, race control allows lapped cars — cars that are a lap down to the ladders — to unlap themselves by overtaking the safety car and join the queue behind.
On lap 56, there was a message saying lapped cars will not be allowed to overtake the safety car, which would have meant had the race resumed, Verstappen would be further behind Hamilton even though the lapped cars would have got out of his way. The Red Bull team boss immediately spoke to the race director protesting this.
Suddenly on lap 57, the race director allowed five cars between Hamilton and Verstappen alone to unlap themselves and gave the message “safety car in this lap” allowing one lap of racing.
It is here that the controversy started. According to the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) F1 Sporting Regulations, Article 48.12, “any cars that have been lapped by the leader will be required to pass the cars on the lead lap and the safety car.”
The regulation also states, “Once the last lapped car has passed the leader, the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap.”
This meant all cars, and not only five, should have been allowed to unlap the leader and also that safety car could have come in only on the following lap i.e. lap 58, which meant the race would have ended behind safety car with Hamilton sealing the title.
Instead, once the five cars passed, the safety car came into the pits on lap 57 itself, with Verstappen right behind Hamilton.
When racing resumed, he was able to pass the latter on track with his fresher tyres to win the race and secure his first championship.
The Mercedes team made two protests. The first one was by arguing Verstappen went ahead of Hamilton, albeit for a fraction of a second behind the safety car. The stewards conceded that while Verstappen’s car was slightly ahead he anyway dropped behind at the restart and closed the case.
The second protest was against the classification of the results contending the right procedures were not followed when the safety car was withdrawn.
The Stewards decision
In a late-night ruling on December 12, the stewards dismissed Mercedes’ contention by arguing two other rules took precedence over Article 48.12 that the team cited was not properly followed.
The stewards argued that Article 15.3, “allows the Race Director to control the use of the safety car, which in our determination includes its deployment and withdrawal.”
The next rule the stewards cited was Article 48.13 which states that once the message “safety car in” is given, the safety car will have to enter the pits on that lap itself and it overrides 48.12.
In their verdict, the stewards said, “That although Article 48.12 may not have been applied fully, in relation to the safety car returning to the pits at the end of the following lap, Article 48.13 overrides that and once the message “safety car in this lap” has been displayed, it is mandatory to withdraw the safety car at the end of that lap”
Moreover, the Race Director argued that teams agreed that it was “highly desirable for the race to end in a ‘green’ condition” meaning not behind the safety car. So to have a green flag condition, the safety car was brought in immediately.
Regarding the selective approval for only five cars to unlap the leaders, the race director Massi told the Stewards, “purpose of Article 48.12 was to remove those lapped cars that would “interfere” in the racing between the leaders (Hamilton and Verstappen in this case) and that in his view Article 48.13 was the one that applied in this case.”
After their protests were not upheld, Mercedes lodged an intention to appeal the rejection of its protest regarding the classification of results. This means the team has three days to decide whether it wants to pursue the case and take it to the FIA International Court of Appeal.
For now, Verstappen has been officially declared as the new World Champion and it remains to be seen if Mercedes will pursue it in court.
The 2021 season has been one of the most enthralling years in the history of the sport and it was a tame end to a great season of racing.
The sport has not covered itself in glory with how things were handled on Sunday. Going forward, the teams would hope for more clarity around the regulations and how decisions are made by the FIA.