As has been the case for the 2021 Formula 1 season, the championship-deciding race was rife with drama.
On the closing laps of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Williams driver Nicholas Latifi slid off the track and hit a wall, leading to a safety car. That safety car turned out to be the fateful event as it closed the gap between race leader Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, with Verstappen eventually taking the lead on the final lap of the final race of the season.
Here’s how the season ended with Max Verstappen crowned the 2021 F1 Champion pic.twitter.com/5CO2qDIMgE— Maury Brown (@BizballMaury) December 12, 2021
But the decision to restart the race while several cars were not allowed to unlap themselves garnered criticism and questions.
Here’s what happened:
What happened on the last lap?
FIA rules indicate that any (not quite all) lapped cars that line up behind a safety car are allowed to overtake and un-lap themselves while the safety car is out on the track. That didn’t happen on Sunday.
Of the eight drivers who were lapped in the race, only five were allowed to pass Lewis Hamilton under the safety car: Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel. There were three more cars that had yet to unlap themselves (Daniel Ricciardo, Lance Stroll, Mick Schumacher), but potentially should have been given the opportunity to do so, per the FIA’s rules.
Only once all cars unlap themselves is when the safety car can end, and it must do so on the following lap. Instead, the safety car exited the circuit following the five cars advancing, with the final three cars yet to unlap themselves.
Had those three cars also been given the OK to unlap themselves, it would have taken one more lap and the race would have ended under a yellow flag, with Hamilton securing the victory.
Article 39.12 of sporting regs says: "If clerk of the course considers it safe to do so, and the message "LAPPED CARS MAY NOW OVERTAKE" has been sent to all teams, any cars that have been lapped by leader will be required to pass the cars on the lead lap and the safety car." 1/— Andrew Benson (@andrewbensonf1) December 12, 2021
Instead, the race restarted after the cars that separated Hamilton and Verstappen passed Hamilton, leading to the controversial end of the race.
So, in layman’s terms: If all the cars had been allowed to pass and the safety car rule was followed to the letter of the law, the race would have ended under a safety car, Hamilton would have won his eighth world championship and the finish with Verstappen would have been decidedly anticlimactic.
It seems as though race stewards would have preferred the championship be decided on one final lap of racing as opposed to under a yellow flag. While that makes for good entertainment and water-cooler talk, it isn’t within the spirit of the rules.
Race director Michael Masi made as much clear with his ambiguous message over team radio.
Here's Masi basically saying they just decided to wing it pic.twitter.com/v3oPTAbDSE— Jay Rigdon (@jayrigdon5) December 12, 2021
“Toto? It’s called a motor race, OK?,” Masi said over team coms to Mercedes' team principal Toto Wolff. “We went car racing.”
For those wondering why there wasn’t a red flag: According to the Sky Sports broadcast, prior to the start, stewards decided the race was not going to be red flagged had a crash happened in the spot that Latifi crashed into, so that wasn’t an option.
Mercedes decided to file two formal protests for the seeming breach of rules following the race: One for the cars overtaking (or not overtaking) during the safety car, and one for Verstappen potentially overtaking during the safety car period. There is much more ambiguity over the second protest than the first.
2 protests by Mercedes filed pic.twitter.com/bNGzopF8lz— Jenna Fryer (@JennaFryer) December 12, 2021
With Mercedes and Red Bull meeting with FIA officials following the race regarding the protests, FIA had yet to release a statement on the matter at hand. Sky Sports reported that Mercedes had brought a barrister to their meeting with race stewards, so clearly, they were taking the matter very seriously, hoping to earn a favorable decision.
Per reports, FIA dismissed both protests a few hours following the race, leaving Verstappen as the winner of the race, and the driver’s champion for 2021.
Here’s why FIA denied both appeals:
- Officials deemed that Verstappen, who had just inched past Hamilton during the safety car period for a second before backing up, did not actually overtake during the safety car or gain an advantage.
- Officials also determined that the race director has unilateral control over the deployment and use of the safety car (Article 15.3), though there is some debate over the spirit of that rule and; Article 48.13 indicates that the “Safety Car In This Lap” message displayed to drivers in fact, means that the safety car will be in during that lap, not the following lap, therefore superseding article 48.12, which says that “any cars which have been lapped” must un-lap themselves during the safety car.
One Mercedes protest rejected - the one about overtaking before the restart. "Although (VER) did, for a very short period of time, move slightly in front of (HAM), when both were accelerating and braking, moved back behind and not in front when safety car period ended"— Andrew Benson (@andrewbensonf1) December 12, 2021
Stewards outlined that Article 15.3 allows the Race Director to control use of the SC. "That although Article 48.12 may not have been applied fully, Article 48.13 overrides that."— Phillip Horton (@PHortonF1) December 12, 2021
Mercedes wanted results taken back to penultimate lap. Stewards said this was not appropriate.
Drivers, analysts and fans alike were confused with the way that the race had restarted:
There were a few drivers in the TV pen after the race (Norris and Ricciardo were two) who admitted they didn't quite know how to feel over the way it finished. They said Max fully deserved the title, but the way the restart was handled confused some #F1 #AbuDhabiGP— Chris Medland (@ChrisMedlandF1) December 12, 2021
Max is an absolutely fantastic driver who has had an incredible season and I have nothing but huge respect for him, but what just happened is absolutely unacceptable. I cannot believe what we’ve just seen.— George Russell (@GeorgeRussell63) December 12, 2021
With both protests thrown out, Mercedes has decided to lodge their right to appeal, which means they have 48 hours to put together a case for an appeal. Ultimately, this may end up in court.
What’s known for sure, though, is that Max Verstappen is world champion. At least, for now.