July 7, 2022
Sports

Lewis Hamilton wasn’t the only loser from F1 season’s farcical finish

independent– Millions of people around the world sat down on Sunday to watch the finale of the most finely poised Formula One race in the sport’s 71-year history, at the end of a sensational season in which two astonishing athletes have performed at the very peak of their abilities weekend upon weekend.

A strong proportion of that audience will have been doing so for the first time in their life, or at least for one of the first few times, captivated by the intensity of the battle between two men as raucously talented as Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton.

The differences in personality between the two contenders will have been explained in meticulous detail to them by excited, experienced friends. They will have googled qualifying rules to try and figure out how on Earth the running order is decided, and what starting on the same tyres used in Q2 is all about. Eventually, they will have excitedly sat in front of the screen, waiting to discover which driver would be crowned king in the end, but more importantly, waiting to be in turned into lifelong fans of a sport that is desperate to harness the ferocity of the title race and turn it into sustainable long-term growth.

It is such a shame, then, that what they were ultimately left watching was a confusing and borderline farcical end to the Grand Prix leading to mentions of appeals, barristers and courtrooms which will have bamboozled any sports fan unfamiliar with the politicisation of motorsport and its rulebooks.

Hamilton had driven a pristine race from the very start when he reacted faster than Verstappen at lights out, and produced a string of solid lap-times in his first stint on the medium tyres and his second on the hards to build up a solid lead that the Dutchman could not erode, even after stopping for a second time.

The stewards and the FIA could have been forgiven for thinking their involvement in a chaotic campaign full of dissent and wrangling was over, and that they could watch the final few laps in peace.

But as soon as Nicholas Latifi spun off circuit while battling Mick Schumacher and caused terminal damage to his Williams car, right at the very back of the field, FIA race director Michael Masi will have known that the pressure was on. With six laps remaining, a safety car was clearly necessary, but the minutiae of managing its introduction and eventual return to the pits was not.

Masi had to decide on two separate, crucial details. First, if and when to restart the race. Second, whether to allow lapped cars to re-overtake the leaders and join the back of the pack.

On the issue of restarting the race, Masi made the call that one final lap of racing was safe, once the stricken Williams had been recovered by crane and the volunteer marshals had been able to leave the track. This is not where the controversy came from, and is unquestionably the preferable choice compared to finishing the race behind the safety car with no further overtaking.

Now that one further lap of racing was going to happen, Masi had to settle on whether to allow un-lapped cars to overtake the safety car and join the back of the field. That call is at the discretion of the Race Director, and sometimes happens, sometimes does not. At first, Masi made the call that un-lapped cars would not be allowed to overtake the safety. That meant Max Verstappen faced having to overtake a glut of drivers ahead of him, having stopped for a fresh set of soft tyres. Even with the aid of blue flags, that would have been pretty much impossible.

Then the Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner, took to the radio. “Why aren’t we getting these lapped cars out of the way?,” he demanded. “Just give me… Because, Christian… Just give me a second, ok?”, came Masi’s reply.

The response was stunted and uncertain, spoken through pursed lips rather than with a full throat. Seconds later, the announcement came that some lapped cars, the ones separating Hamilton and Verstappen, would be allowed to overtake the safety car. The ones behind Verstappen would not be allowed the same opportunity.

Allowing some, but not all, lapped cars to overtake the safety car is unprecedented in Formula One. Horner’s Mercedes counterpart Toto Wolff was furious. “Michael! You can’t do this!” he bellowed from over the radio from the team’s garage to race control. But the decision was made, Hamilton was a sitting duck on much older tyres at the restart, and Verstappen made a comfortable pass into turn five to take the lead, the win, and the championship.

Wolff was not finished. “Michael that was not right,” he said as Verstappen crossed the line. “You need to change the result to the previous lap.”

“We call that motor racing, Toto,” was Masi’s reply.

In a season as intense and strenuous as this, it is not only Verstappen and Hamilton who have been put under an immense amount of public pressure. Their teams bosses, race engineers and mechanics all live the journey with them, and their successes and errors have an enormous impact on who finishes on top come the chequered flag at the final race.

There is an argument to be made, though, that Masi has had the most difficult job of all in 2021. Verstappen and Hamilton are two aggressive drivers who push their own ability, and each other’s patience, to the limit of not only their own vehicles’ capacity but also the rules of the sport. Throughout the campaign there have been flashpoints, clashes and crashes where Masi and the stewards have been forced to rule, earning them the wrath of not only the teams themselves but of fans worldwide. Refereeing a fight as ferocious as this with decisions made in split-seconds is a thankless task.

The circumstances of Latifi’s crash and the necessary safety car were not Masi’s fault. His hand was forced. But the handling was his responsibility. The indecision, the turnaround with the lapped cars, and the huge advantage it gave Verstappen are what Masi and the FIA are accountable for when all is said and done.

Had the lapped cars been told to hold position, Verstappen would have been too far back to challenge and Hamilton would have been guaranteed the win. The alternative, which Masi opted for, made Verstappen a shoe-in for the victory and thus, the championship.

The choice was between following precedent to the letter, or doing something never seen before for the sake of one final lap of racing and the entertainment it would bring with it. For better or worse Masi, and in turn Formula One, went with entertainment.

Cue the celebrations, recriminations and bewilderment. Verstappen, as it stands, is world champion, and the most stunning season in the history of the sport has ended in farce.

The decision that had to be made was grim either way, as it essentially guaranteed one outcome over the other. But the fact the favoured option was unprecedented leaves a particularly sour taste. The debate and deal-making over team radio between the race director and team principals does not help one bit, and F1 may want to consider whether the drama of listening in to such conversations is worth the fury it has caused at Yas Marina this weekend and Jeddah at the previous race.

The reality, however inadvertent though it may be, is that Michael Masi, not Max Verstappen or Lewis Hamilton, has ultimately delivered the defining, king-making moment of the season.

Hamilton lost out on this occasion, on the most painful day of his career. But the bigger losers are the prospective Formula One fans who will have turned off in disbelief at what they had seen, and the sport itself which has seen one of its biggest opportunities descend into chaos and courtroom argument.

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