If there was one thing there appeared to be universal agreement on before Formula One’s season decider in Abu Dhabi, it was that no one wanted the result of an enthralling championship to be decided in the stewards’ room. Inevitably four hours after the flag fell, wrangling with the stewards continued. It may well yet go on for days or longer. Fans were left with a dissatisfying conclusion that was hard to understand, confusing in its methodology and that has triggered only acrimony and rancour. There were celebrations in Abu Dhabi but outside of the Red Bull garage it was far from a celebratory event.
Max Verstappen has been crowned world champion and there is no argument that had he or Lewis Hamilton won it, both would have been worthy winners in what has been an absolutely gripping fight between the two rivals. Yet the manner of the victory was bungled almost to the point of farce by the FIA.
F1’s rules, lengthy, arcane and of such volume they are hoped to cover almost any circumstance, here proved muddled and apparently open to such discretion and interpretation many are feeling they are perhaps entirely needless.
When the FIA race director, Michael Masi, displayed such eagerness to have racing begin again with at least one lap to finish under racing conditions, the regulations had to bend into shape to fit that will. In the rejection of the Mercedes protests afterwards by the stewards, this became clear.
Perhaps most jarring of all was this very fervour to ensure one final racing lap took place. With five laps remaining the under safety car and the stricken Williams of Nicholas Latifi taking several laps to remove the expectation was that the race would conclude behind the safety car. In any other circumstances, it surely would.
Yet this was dismissed in favour of securing a final lap by any means necessary. There were shades of the same apparent cynicism that had prompted F1 to undertake two laps behind the safety car at Spa to ensure that a race had taken place and a victor could be declared. It is hard not to imagine that with the new Netflix generation of F1 fans it was deemed unacceptable to have the championship decided behind the safety car.
The instruction that lapped cars could not unlap followed. To which Red Bull complained. Then Masi announced that the five cars between Hamilton and Verstappen could unlap themselves but not the other lapped cars behind them, an unprecedented halfway house interpretation of the rules and to which Mercedes complained.
Masi had used discretion to dictate which cars could unlap themselves based on the rationale that they were the cars that would interfere in the racing between the leaders. Yet in order to do so the rules state that: “Once the last lapped car has passed the leader, the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap.” However the end of the following lap would have been too late as the race would have then been over. So this too was overruled and it came in immediately to allow the final lap to begin. In rejecting the Mercedes appeal Masi’s “overriding authority” over the safety car use was cited.
Were it not already confusing enough for the average fan this presents some tortuous logical leaps. Masi had decided to overrule the lapped cars rule, and then in turn had to overrule the application of that rule regarding the safety car in order to achieve the end he was committed to making – a final racing lap.
Lando Norris dismissed it as being done purely for TV. George Russell was outraged and deemed it absolutely unacceptable. To the Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff’s in-race complaints Masi issued a dismissive rebuttal with an almost hysterical air. “It’s called a motor race, Toto,” he said as this one-lap motor race duly played out.
In a season marked by inconsistency of decision-making by the stewards on just what the title protagonists could and couldn’t do on track this was a baffling escalation, apparently placing the expediency of the show, the occasion over normal protocols. The protests may continue and some agreement may be reached but the result will almost certainly not be changed. Verstappen will remain champion and he deserves it. But F1 and its fans also deserved to have had their winner crowned in far more edifying circumstances.