Chaos and Confusion: An Unforgettable F1 Title Decider

The penultimate race of the F1 season ended in what has been deemed by many a quite controversial manner. Many fans have voiced confusion over the safety car procedure that happened in the last few laps and the appeals that Mercedes lodged with the FIA. ATRL’s Kristina Agresta takes you through the final laps, the appeals, and the possible future of this championship below. 

Written by Kristina Agresta

December 13, 2021

The Abu Dhabi GP was set to be one of the most exciting events on the calendar, with the two championship rivals level on points before the season finale. After a great start from P2, Lewis Hamilton dominated the race and seemed almost set to win both the race and championship. The tide turned for the 7-time world champion when on lap 53, Williams’ Nicholas Latifi crashed after spinning at the exit of Turn 14. 


To allow the marshalls to safely recover Latifi’s car and clear the debris on track, the FIA brought out the safety car. This is where the confusion for teams and fans alike began. Verstappen pitted for new soft tyres under the safety car, hoping to gain a slight advantage in his fight through the backmarkers to Hamilton if the safety car went in before the end of the race. Initially, Michael Masi and Race Control declared that lapped cars would not be overtaking the safety car before it went in. On lap 57, Race Control stated that the 5 lapped cars between Verstappen and Hamilton would in fact overtake the safety car before the restart. This included Norris, Alonso, Ocon, Leclerc, and Vettel. The safety car then went into the pits before lap 58, so there would be a return to green flag racing for one last lap. 


Verstappen went on to win the race and the championship, but Mercedes lodged a double complaint with the FIA post-race to challenge two moments. The first was Verstappen coming up close to Hamilton before the safety car restart. The second was a complaint against the FIA themselves for not following their own safety car regulations. The first complaint was dismissed, and Mercedes will not be appealing it; however, their protest against the FIA will go to the FIA’s International Court of Appeal. 


Article 48.12 of the F1 Sporting Regulations states, “If the clerk of the course considers it safe to do so, and the message “LAPPED CARS MAY NOW OVERTAKE” has been sent to all Competitors via the official messaging system, any cars that have been lapped by the leader will be required to pass the cars on the lead lap and the safety car… Unless the clerk of the course considers the presence of the safety car is still necessary, once the last lapped car has passed the leader the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap.”


There are a few unusual things about the application of this article in the Abu Dhabi GP. Firstly, the wording of the article is that ANY lapped cars should overtake the safety car if that is the decision of the race director, but only the cars in between Verstappen and Hamilton were allowed to overtake the safety car. Second, the restart procedure is straightforward in that the safety car should return to the pits at the END of the lap after lapped cars overtake the safety car, meaning that the safety car should’ve gone in at the end of lap 58, which was consequently the end of the race. 


The somewhat strange application of this regulation affected the outcome of the championship battle between Verstappen and Hamilton and the race as a whole. The lapped cars between Verstappen and Sainz were not allowed to overtake the safety car, meaning that the other drivers fighting for 3rd did not have the advantage of lapped cars getting out of the way. 


After Mercedes lodged their protest with the FIA, the FIA dismissed it, claiming that Article 15.3 allows the race director to “control the use of the safety car.” It is within Mercedes’ rights to appeal this dismissal and take it to the International Court of Appeal, and the team has 72 hours to do so. Mercedes confirmed on Twitter that they have lodged their intent to appeal. 

Mercedes announcing their intent to appeal the FIA’s dismissal (Photo via @MercedesAMGF1 on Instagram)

As for Red Bulls view of what occurred, Christian Horner said, “I think (Masi) made the right decision. He followed the rules procedure if you look at the rules available to him and he’s made the right call today. We felt he’d made the wrong at the beginning of the race – or the stewards made the wrong call – when Lewis didn’t give any time back, but I think it’s tough for them in difficult circumstances.” (Via Racer)


After the race, many drivers voiced their confusion or even outright frustration with the FIA. Lando Norris said in a post-race interview, “It was obviously made to be a fight. It was for the TV, of course. It was for the result. Whether or not it was fair, it’s hard for me to decide” (via The Guardian). Former World Champion Damon Hill, who was with Sky UK commentating this weekend also had some choice words, saying, “It’s a huge problem because a company like Mercedes will say: ‘If you’re not going to adjudicate the sport properly, if it’s going to be done on a whim, to say, ‘let them race,’ then they’ll just say: ‘We’re not playing.’ ” (via The Guardian). 


GPDA director and future Mercedes driver, George Russell, expressed his frustration on Twitter, writing, “THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE!!!! 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.” In post-race interviews, other drivers such as Fernando Alonso and Daniel Ricciardo stated that they were unclear on how to feel about the safety car procedure that occurred during those last few laps. 


In what is sure to be a long and controversial process, Mercedes and Red Bull will be meeting with the International Court of Appeals over the next few weeks. Until this process is completed, fans will be holding their breath to find out the fate of their favorite driver. 

Max Verstappen (center) on the podium of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

In a piece for Racer Magazine, Chris Medland summed up what many are feeling, writing, “Verstappen did nothing wrong. Hamilton did nothing wrong. Red Bull did nothing wrong. Mercedes did nothing wrong. They all played the hand they were dealt, but whether that hand should have been dealt in the first place is now up for such controversial debate. The only entity that might have done something wrong is the FIA’s race director – or race control as a wider group – and that just isn’t the way this season should have ended. It doesn’t do it justice.” 


The conclusion to the 2021 F1 season is undoubtedly not what many expected, but until the appeals process is over, the fight for the championship isn’t quite finished yet. 


Kristina developed her love of motorsport through years watching Top Gear with her dad every night. She specializes in Formula One and it’s feeder series F2, F3, and F4. Her favorite teams are Williams & McLaren and supports Prema & ART Grand Prix in feeder series. Outside of motorsport Kristina spends her time supporting the Washington Football Team and studying film. You can find her on Twitter as @agrestaP1.

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