EDITORIAL: The Italian GP further devalues Verstappen’s 2021 title win

© Wolfgang Wilhelm for Daimler AG

By Adrian Mann

Max Verstappen won the 2022 Italian Grand Prix, however, the Safety Car finish further showed how utterly wrong the result of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was.

The story of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is well known. After Nicholas Latifi’s crash at the exit of turn 14, five laps before the end of the race, the Safety Car came out. What happened then will be talked about and debated among Formula 1 fans for years.

Red Bull called Max Verstappen into the pits to put him on fresh soft tyres, while Mercedes decided to keep Lewis Hamilton (who had a comfortable lead at the time) out on old worn-down medium tyres, because they didn’t want 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 have taken the lead of the race.

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It is important to understand that the Safety Car rules (then and now) 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. Since Mercedes knew 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 full procedure to be completed, it was obvious to them that the race will end under the Safety Car. This means that had Lewis stopped for new tyres, Verstappen would have stayed out, taken the lead, and ultimately won the race and the championship. That is, if the rules were followed.

However, race director Michael Masi then decided to basically make up his own rules, supposedly to ensure a green flag ending to the title decider. To make this happen, he 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 caused great controversy, which led to Michael Masi being removed from his position, and later after their investigation into the finish, the FIA said Masi made a “human error”. Despite this, the results of the race and the championship still stood.

Well, this controversy was stirred up again following the finish of last weekend’s Italian Grand Prix. In this case, a Safety Car also came out five laps before the end of the race (like it did in Abu Dhabi), but this time the FIA followed the full procedure. Since there were not enough laps left to complete the procedure before the chequered flag, the race ended under the Safety Car, and Max Verstappen, who was leading the race before the SC came out, was declared the winner. This time the FIA followed the rules.

Now, the Safety Car rules were further clarified following Abu Dhabi, but the reality is there was no clarification needed, the same procedure that was required this year in Monza, was also required last year in the title decider. After the Italian GP, many were not pleased with the fact that the race did not end under green flag conditions, but the rules, as they currently stand, did not allow for any other conclusion. Even Ferrari’s Mattia Binotto admitted that, in their post-Abu Dhabi meetings, the FIA, Formula 1 management and the teams decided to keep the Safety Car procedure the same as it was. This was also confirmed by McLaren’s Andreas Seidl.

So, in essence, by following the rules at Monza, the FIA clearly showed that they are aware that the rules were not followed in Abu Dhabi. Since it is obvious that had they been followed, Lewis Hamilton would be the race winner, and an eight-time F1 champion, it is valid to pose a question: What does this say about the legitimacy of Verstappen’s title win? Well, do I really need to answer that?

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