Safety Car driver Bernd Mayländer opens up on 2021 Abu Dhabi GP

© LAT Images for Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Ltd

Bernd Mayländer was the driver behind the wheel of the Safety Car that decided the 2021 championship. He gives his comments on the controversy and we respond.

Bernd Mayländer has been a Formula 1 Safety Car driver since 2000, but he most definitely never before had to deal with a situation as controversial as the final race of the 2021 season.

At the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, title rivals Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen entered the race equal on points, and until the last few laps of the race it seemed almost certain that Hamilton would emerge as the winner and an eight-time champion.

The Briton completely dominated the race up to that point, Verstappen was helpless, and then Williams’ Nicolas Latifi crashed on lap 53 of 58, which brought out the Safety Car.

To keep a long story short, the race director at the time, Michael Masi, made a series of decisions which went completely against the rules, and basically handed Verstappen the title on a silver platter.

In a new interview with Mayländer, Auto Motor und Sport asked the Safety Car driver to give his perspective on the controversial situation.

“I talked to my co-driver Richard [Darker] about two or three laps before the accident,” Mayländer said.

“So he was more on Verstappen’s side, and I was a bit more on Mercedes’ side. It changed during the season. I said it would be nice if someone else became champion.

“Then, during the last races, I thought it was really great how Hamilton came back after it didn’t look like he would.

“And there were also a few overtaking manoeuvres by Max that I didn’t find so good. Well, it’s just the new generation.

“Then I thought about how I would rate myself as a racing driver. I found some of the manoeuvres a bit too harsh, but that’s how it is. I don’t hold grudges there, either.

“And then [at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix], it was a done deal for me. The championship went to Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes together for the 8th time.

“Even if that would have broken Michael’s [Schumacher] record of seven world championship titles, well, that’s just the way it is.

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“[Hamilton] did a great job, and everything was actually good. And then suddenly there was a bang.

“And I knew precisely: okay, at that location, this kind of accident, this must be a safety car phase. And then I knew, okay, now there’s another situation.”

What happened then is the controversial part. In short, once the Safety Car came out Red Bull called Max Verstappen into the pits to put him on fresh soft tyres.

Mercedes, however, decided to keep Lewis Hamilton (who had a comfortable lead at the time) out on old worn-down tyres, because they didn’t want him to give up his track position to Verstappen.

It has to be understood that, since Verstappen didn’t have the pace to overtake Lewis on the track, Red Bull had to always do the opposite of what Hamilton does, in hopes that if luck strikes, he’ll have an opportunity to overtake through strategy.

Since Lewis was ahead on the track, Mercedes were the first team to decide if they were going to pit, and they decided against that, because had they pitted Lewis, Red Bull would have kept Verstappen out, and he would take the lead of the race.

Mercedes knew at that point that with only five laps remaining, it was impossible for the marshals to clear the track of Latifi’s wrecked car in time for the race to be restarted.

The rules state that once the track is cleared, the lapped cars need to unlap themselves, and only at the end of the following lap can the race be restarted.

This means that by allowing Verstappen to gain track position over Lewis, Mercedes would have given the Dutch driver the race win on a silver platter, because there were not enough laps left for the procedure to be followed in full, and for the race to be restarted. At that point it was clear that the race would end under the Safety Car.

However, race director Michael Masi then arbitrarily decided not to follow the rules, supposedly because race control wanted the race to end under green flag conditions.

To make this happen, Masi broke two rules on the penultimate lap of the race. First he allowed only the lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen to unlap themselves (those behind them were not allowed to do so), and then he restarted the race immediately upon the start of the next lap, not allowing for the required one more lap under the Safety Car.

Needless to say that this allowed Verstappen, who was now immediately behind Lewis and on fresh tyres, to easily overtake him on the final lap, a lap that according to the rules should have ended under the Safety Car.

This is where Mayländer’s take is actually not correct. Here is what he had to say about the way the race ended:

“And then I thought: good, this is over. That [Verstappen overtaking Hamilton] would have happened even without sorting the cars in between.

“Then Max would have done the overtaking manoeuvre two corners later. They would have been given the blue flag for overtaking.”

As already explained, this is not what would have happened had the rules been followed. Had they been followed the race would have ended under the Safety Car, with Hamilton in the lead.

Obviously had Mercedes known that the rules would be broken to allow for a single lap of racing, they would have pitted Lewis for fresh tyres. Had Red Bull then decided not to pit Max, it would be Lewis who would overtake in the final lap, because of his tyre advantage.

On the other hand, had Red Bull decided to pit Max anyway, Lewis would have regained his track position ahead of Max and they would both be on the same tyre. In this scenario, considering the pace advantage he had for the whole race, Lewis would have again won.

Mayländer then explained his thoughts after the whole situation went down.

“And that’s how challenging sport can be. Afterwards, I took a step back and did some soul-searching.

“In the following days, I hoped that no journalists would call me. I didn’t switch off my mobile phone, but I didn’t answer some of the numbers because I knew: ‘okay, good, I’ll get a question like that’. I just wanted to decide for myself: ‘do I like it or not, as it was?’

“A few days later, I said, no, everything was actually fine the way it happened. Both teams deserved to be champions.

“Max was clearly the lucky one in the end, and the team did a great job throughout the year. As did the others, of course, but the last bit of luck was missing for Lewis. That’s just the way it is in sports.

“We have to remember that we are talking about sport. I am a sportsman and can live with such a situation. But of course, I have to find the right way. I don’t care who wins the race on Sunday; the main thing is that we see a great sport out there.

“And the sport has improved steadily over the last few years and has become even better. And that’s what appeals to me.

“In the job, you’re part of it. You can’t influence anything, but you can change a situation in the blink of an eye with a safety car phase, which brings either luck or bad luck. But, well, safety first.”

As was previously explained, this take is completely wrong. Surely for sporting principles to be upheld, rules have to be followed. Had they been followed Lewis would have won, no question about it.

And the whole situation had nothing to do with luck. Mercedes did not choose to keep Lewis on the track as a gamble, they kept him out because the Safety Car procedure could not be completed in time to allow for more racing.

Mayländer then further explained his post-race thinking.

“It was on the last lap when we came in, so I knew I didn’t need to return to my parking position, where I usually am.

“I went straight into the parc fermé then, where I typically arrive last under normal conditions, but then I arrived first.

“I then hid a little bit on the side of the car, as I usually do, only as the last one, got out and went to the hospitality with my helmet on.

“I went through the hospitality and sat down at the back of the harbour and didn’t even see the finish. Because I just had to think about everything that had just happened.

“And it was clear that Max had overtaken; I could hear from the noise that a lot had happened on the track. And well, ‘that’s racing’, so I found my way.

“You can look at the situation or the decision one way or the other. There has already been a lot of discussion about it. I can live with the decision the way it ultimately turned out.

“For me, both were worthy world champions. Only on that day Max had more luck, or a lot more luck, on his side.

“The bottom line: all is well,” Mayländer concluded.

With all due respect to Mayländer, all is definitely not well, as there is no doubt that the rules have not been followed. In fact they have been broken in exactly the right (and only) way that allows Verstappen to win the race and the championship.

If sporting integrity is a priority, there is no way that a result like this is good for the sport in question.

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