Formula 1 Correspondent
7:47 PM 14th December 2021
The Aftermath Of Abu Dhabi
Having been a motorsport reporter for the last 24 years and with Formula 1 very much being my specialist area within the wide-ranging racing world, it is simply music to my ears to hear so many people currently engrossed in discussions about F1 following the controversial end to Sunday’s title deciding finale in Abu Dhabi. Even better that many who normally would only have a passing interest in the sport are actively involved in this debate, helped by the race having been shown live as usual on the pay-to-view Sky F1 channel but also on free-to-view Channel 4 after pressure from fans for a deal to be done.
Motorsport always has to tread a fine line between entertainment and rule bound sporting achievement and, if the latter is tarnished in favour of the former, no-one is a winner. The hugely popular British Touring Car Championship openly admits that its rules have been geared to ensure ontrack entertainment by levelling the playing field with the likes of success ballast and partial reverse grids, but in contrast Formula 1 likes to see itself as a pure meritocracy with no artificial aids to make the fastest cars slower. This means that in F1 the best teams of any given era tend to race at the front of the grid for the victory spoils and the less competitive ones languish well behind them.
Let’s just hope that commonsense rather than QCs prevail and that Verstappen is crowned as the unquestioned new F1 champion at the official FIA awards
So, why the furore amongst some quarters about what ultimately happened at Yas Marina? Let’s briefly recap what occurred. Sir Lewis Hamilton leapt into an immediate lead from second on the grid, sweeping past the polesitting Max Verstappen, but there was controversy later on the opening lap when the Mercedes driver went unpunished for gaining an advantage after leaving and rejoining the track after coming under pressure from the Red Bull Drivers’ championship leader. As the race progressed Hamilton consolidated his lead and, as the closing laps neared, he had a comfortable lead over his arch rival, looking very much set to take the victory and with it a recordbreaking eighth title.
However, luck has often played a part in the outcome of motorsport races and championships and Red Bull was given a massive helping of it when, with just five of the 58 laps remaining, Williams’ Nicholas Latifi had a race ending impact with the barriers after tussling with the Haas of Mick Schumacher. The FIA race director Michael Masi immediately realised that a Virtual Safety Car period would not provide sufficient safety for clearance of the car and related debris and so deployed a full Safety Car intervention. After some deliberation the Australian then used the authority given him due to his role and ordered that the five lapped cars circulating between the leading Hamilton and second placed Verstappen pass the Safety Car. This left Verstappen right behind his rival and Masi, very much wanting to finish the race as just that and not as a slow speed procession behind the Safety Car, also ordered the latter back into the pitlane at the end of lap 57, leaving the world to witness a one lap fight between the title rivals, with the winner taking all. With Red Bull having been far more reactive to ontrack circumstances than Mercedes and having made a late stop to put both their drivers onto soft specification tyres, the unlucky Hamilton was left defenceless on ageing hard rubber as Verstappen made best use of his far grippier, fresher tyres and swept by to take the victory and with it the title.
Ever since then social media has been ablaze, with supporters of Hamilton and Mercedes feeling that their man was robbed, whereas Verstappen and Red Bull fans agreed that they had been very fortunate with the late Safety Car period but that the subsequent outcome was totally acceptable under the circumstances, arguing that when you look at the season as a whole their man deserved to be the new world champion.
Many have since pilloried Masi for his actions, but plenty of others have sympathised with him, knowing that in a very difficult and pressurised situation he was only doing what he felt was best for the good of the sport. Being race director can often be something of a poisoned chalice as you know that whatever decisions you make are likely to upset at least one party, but it goes with the territory.
Northern club racing legend David Cox with his longtime favourite racing car, in which he still competes
Ever since the end of the Grand Prix Mercedes has been vociferous in its condemnation of Masi’s actions, with two post race protests rejected by the stewards in Abu Dhabi hours after the chequered flag had been waved, but with a lingering threat to potentially seek to take the matter further in front of in effect a higher court. Many are perhaps rightly suggesting though that it is time for Mercedes to lose with grace now rather than potentially still lose later with lawyers.
There is certainly a need for the F1 authorities to take a detailed look at the extensive sporting regulations to simplify them and help to reduce the risk of Sunday’s proceedings ever happening again. It is also imperative that changes are made to stop senior team personnel being allowed to openly try to influence the race director to make crucial decisions in their own favour.
There’s a saying that what goes around comes around, including re luck, and on Sunday my thoughts wandered back to Brazil 2008 when an incident at the final corner on the final lap of the last Grand Prix of the season enabled fifth placed Hamilton to take his first world title out of the hands of the race winning Felipe Massa. It was so tough for Massa that day, with then and last weekend simply proving that sometimes Lady Luck favours you and sometimes she doesn’t, as all the drivers well know.
By co-incidence, my wife and I met up for a catch-up over lunch today with the northern club racing legend David Cox from Darlington and his lovely wife Heather. They too are passionate about Formula 1 and, with David having almost fifty years of ontrack experience as a racing driver and still competing, his views on Masi’s behaviour last Sunday were very much worth listening to: “You have to feel for Michael Masi as he alone was faced with making such vital decisions in literally just a few minutes as the world watched live, whilst overseeing the clearance of Latifi’s car and being continually badgered by team personnel. He acted within his authority and with what he thought was the best interest of the sport at this crucial finale.” David, who is neither a Hamilton nor a Verstappen fan, being merely a fan of all forms of motorsport, also added “That really was the most exciting end to a Grand Prix that I have ever witnessed live or on television.”
Let’s just hope that commonsense rather than QCs prevail and that Verstappen is crowned as the unquestioned new F1 champion at the official FIA awards evening later this week, with everyone then regrouping over the winter break and coming back refreshed next Spring determined to do even better after such a thrilling, if at times controversial season.