By Adrian Mann
The FIA’s report stemming from their investigation into the controversial finish of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has finally been released last Saturday, right after the Bahrain Grand Prix FP3 and ahead of Qualifying.
The fact that they released such an important document during the busiest time for Formula 1 journalists could be seen as just a coincidence, but for me it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s another attempt by the FIA to make this whole situation disappear. They did a similar thing when they announced Michael Masi’s removal from the position of race director, immediately after Ferrari’s 2022 car launch. Coincidence? Could be, but it’s quite a big one.
However, let’s leave that part of the situation be, and focus on what we received in the report itself. Well, it’s not much. There are a lot of attempts to frame the whole situation as a sequence of unfortunate circumstances, however even if we are to buy these explanations, there’s no escaping the fact that the rules were not applied correctly, and had they been, Lewis Hamilton would have been the 2021 champion.
But let’s take it one step at a time. I’m not going to go through the whole “executive summary” of the report, but I will give my comments on the FIA’s most important conclusions.
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- The Race Director called the safety car back into the pit lane without it having completed an additional lap as required by the Formula 1 Sporting Regulations (Article 48.12). It was apparent from the analysis that there could be different interpretations of Article 48.12 and Article 48.13 of the Formula 1 Sporting Regulations, and that this likely contributed to the applied procedure.
Article 48.12 says that “any cars that have been lapped by the leader will be required to pass the cars on the lead lap and the safety car”, and then “once the last lapped car has passed the leader the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap”.
Article 48.13 states that once the message “Safety Car in this lap” is given, the Safety Car needs to enter the pit lane at the end of the current lap.
The problem here is that Michael Masi allowed lapped drivers (and not all of them) to unlap themselves on the penultimate lap of the race and the message “Safety Car in this lap” had been given immediately on the same lap. According to Article 48.12 the Safety Car had to do an additional lap before entering the pit lane, which would have been the final lap and the race would have ended under the Safety Car. The FIA’s argument is that Article 48.13 has overridden Article 48.12 once the message had been given that the Safety Car had to go in on the same lap. However, it still doesn’t explain why the ‘Safety Car in…’ message had been given at that time, when Article 48.12 specifically says that it should be called in at the end of the next lap. This only confirms that the rules were not applied correctly in this situation, which would make the results of the race not valid.
- It was also considered that the decisions regarding the Safety Car at the end of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix likely took into account previous discussions that made clear the Formula 1 Stakeholders (FIA, Formula 1, Teams and Drivers) preference to end races under green flag racing conditions, rather than behind a safety car, when safe to do so. In combination with the objective to finish under green flag racing conditions applied throughout the 2021 season, the report finds that the Race Director was acting in good faith and to the best of his knowledge given the difficult circumstances, particularly acknowledging the significant time constraints for decisions to be made and the immense pressure being applied by the teams.
Whichever way you look at this argument, it makes no sense. If the Formula 1 Stakeholders agreed that races should end under green flag racing conditions when possible, it surely must mean that this should happen only when rules allow it. If the rules can be broken because the majority wants them to be broken, why do they even exist in the first place? This argument is just an excuse for why the rules were not followed, not an explanation of what makes Masi’s decision legitimate. Again, the FIA has confirmed that the rules were not applied correctly, which would make the results of the race not valid.
- The results of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and the FIA Formula One World Championship are valid, final and cannot now be changed. In accordance with the rules, Mercedes made a protest to the stewards after the race, seeking to change the race classification. The stewards dismissed the protest and Mercedes then had an opportunity to appeal that decision to the FIA International Court of Appeal, but did not do so. There are no other available mechanisms in the rules for amending the race classification.
This is the big one. According to the FIA, the results stand and cannot be changed, not because the rules were upheld, but because nobody challenged them. So, the report confirms that the rules were not applied correctly, then acknowledges that the stewards dismissed Mercedes’ post-race protest, even though they now admit that the rules were not applied correctly. Then they go on to explain that the race results cannot be changed because there are no mechanisms to do so, and not because they are somehow considered valid. So, I’d say this would make the results of the race not valid.
- The process of identifying lapped cars has up until now been a manual one and human error lead to the fact that not all cars were allowed to un-lap themselves. Due to the fact that manual interventions generally carry a higher risk of human error, software has been developed that will, from now on, automate the communication of the list of cars that must un-lap themselves. In addition, the 2022 Formula 1 Sporting Regulations have been recently updated to clarify that “all” and not “any” cars must be permitted to un-lap themselves.
Now we arrive at one of the biggest points of contention. When Masi allowed the lapped cars to unlap themselves, he allowed only those cars that were between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, and not those that were between Verstappen and the third-placed Carlos Sainz. Although it is completely obvious that this was done to allow Max to easily attack Lewis on the final lap of the race, they try to pass it off here as a “human error”. However, even if we were to buy their explanation, it still doesn’t change the fact that it is an error nonetheless.
Had all drivers been allowed to unlap themselves, the race would have ended under the Safety Car, because there was not time for them to do so before the Safety Car goes in at the end of the penultimate lap. Furthermore, had all lapped cars been removed, and if the rules allowed for the race to be restarted somehow, Sainz could have attacked Verstappen and made it more difficult for him. However, ultimately all of that doesn’t matter, because the race could not have been restarted before the chequered flag if the rules had been followed.
It is apparent that the conclusions in the report were designed to try and explain how the decisions that were made at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix were not purposeful attempts to favour Verstappen over Hamilton. However, the report doesn’t hide the fact that the rules were not applied correctly. If the rules were not applied correctly, how can the final result be considered valid? And, most importantly, even if there are no mechanisms to change the results now, and Verstappen’s championship win stands, how can anybody consider him a legitimate champion?
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