GUEST COLUMN: The curious case of ‘Verstappen won, but Hamilton didn’t lose’

© LAT Images for Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Ltd

By Ebiwene O. Bozimo

As I turn the page on the 2021 F1 season whose climax was ruined by Race Director Michael Masi’s decision to break racing rules, my mind muses over other matters.

Defeat Defined

By the time they reach the pinnacle of motorsport that is Formula 1, all drivers have experienced multiple wins and losses – with the former being, normally, more frequent than the latter. So loss, or defeat, is neither novel nor notable to them and can occur, ordinarily, due to any number of factors ranging from luck on the day, mechanical issues, weather etc. In any instance, before the last laps of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, anyone, from driver, team and spectators, could reflect on such factors, out of anyone’s direct control, and make peace with the results.

That all changed on 12/12/2021 when NONE of those extraneous factors had ANYTHING WHATSOEVER to do with the race result, robbing BOTH Hamilton AND Verstappen of the essence, process and rationale for rewards in motorsport. Performance is the normal measure, not assertions of entitlement, or the kindergarten dummy of someone ‘deserving’ a result as some conflicted commentators, seeking to gaslight their audience, went on to assert.

The record books reflects that Verstappen is the 2021 F1 WDC but he, more than anyone else, knows HE did not actually ‘defeat’ Hamilton. Despite all his, his teammate’s and his team’s efforts, he was helpless on the day, losing the lead right from the start and lagging behind underwhelmingly on pure race pace, performance and team strategy.

It was ONLY when the Race Director, on the urging of Verstappen’s Team Principal, broke the rules regarding Safety Cars in a VERY SPECIFIC MANNER, that it was possible for the FIA to orchestrate stealing the race win from Hamilton and Mercedes.

Note: Verstappen did not steal the race from Hamilton. The FIA, personified by Michael Masi, manipulated the race and stole the result from Hamilton.

Thus it is recorded that ‘Verstappen won’ but few can say with a clear conscience that ‘Hamilton lost’. This may be a distinction without a difference but I think it is important for Hamilton, his Mercedes team and their fans in moving forward.

Neither Hamilton nor his Team Principal, Toto Wolff, attended the post-season FIA Gala. I thought this was appropriate especially after the scurrilous screed put out by the FIA, attempting to divert attention from Masi’s ‘rule change’ and instead blame viewers for “misunderstanding” the scandalous Abu Dhabi race ending. The entire stonewalling performance, from dismissing the Mercedes post-race protests to setting up a Commission to ‘investigate the Abu Dhabi race’ is indicative and illustrates a trenchant, truculent and opaque posture that promises little from the FIA investigation, but I would be pleasantly surprised otherwise.

Verstappen will undoubtedly bask in being WDC, but his route to the title raises some other concerns in my mind.

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‘Playstation’ driving standards

Thankfully, the population of F1 viewers who have witnessed the genuine, lethal dangers inherent in motor racing has reduced drastically because of the fantastic improvements in safety standards.

With the application of technology to simulations, many people can now experience a facsimile of the racing experience, engage in dodgy antics and thereafter enjoy the facility of the ‘reset’ button. Races are run with ‘damage off’ or ‘AI intensity low’ and this has probably affected the frame of reference for judging clean, responsible racing.

It might also explain why Verstappen’s driving is described positively even after numerous, reckless lunges and direction changes in braking zones, which earned him an unflattering moniker centered on the word ‘crash’ earlier in his career. A lunge or desperate late braking manoeuvre that forces a competitor off the track is NOT great racing, so even before the Abu Dhabi race I did not share the sentiment that it was the ‘greatest season in years’.

The Netflix ‘tribal’ fan

Investing in ANY sport takes time, attention and resources. Passions, performance and principles also play their role. Ordinarily, fans of the sport may identify with certain high-profile competitors who excel in different ways, most often based on their performance.

Fans, when their focus is on the technicalities or content of the sport, are able to commend performances – if grudgingly – even by those who are not their favourites, strictly based on skills and execution in the sport. Who among us does not admire the elegance of a Federer backhand?

Unfortunately, for reasons that appear extraneous to the sport, many people make it their mission to demean, denigrate and minimize the achievements of certain F1 drivers – constantly making disparaging references to their car, their team etc., pretending, maybe, that the car drives itself.

‘Tribal’ fans of this type introduce unnecessary and unwelcome toxicity to the sport that detracts from and dominates the intricacies of what was left of the ‘sport’ of F1 over the course of the 2021 season.

The Integrity of the FIA

The FIA promised a detailed investigation shortly after the end of the 2021 Abu Dhabi finale. Considering the nature of the issues at stake it is surprising – or perhaps not – that they appear to only be commencing that investigation after an entire month.

An outsider could be forgiven for thinking they hoped the furor would have blown over by now and ‘business as usual’ could resume, but the integrity, structure and tail-chasing nature of the sport and its administrators are increasingly in question. My hope is that a genuine, transparent investigation can yield meaningful reform of how officials operate and how teams can rely on published rules during race weekends rather than ad hoc adjustments for ‘tv drama’.

Race Director Communication

Many, including the Mercedes Team Principal, have suggested that the Race Director should be insulated and isolated from communication with teams. I disagree on the basis of a question that literally everyone might have heard in their youth: “If your friend tells you to jump off a cliff, must you do it?”

No matter what anyone else requests or asserts, The RESPONSIBILITY for the CORRECT interpretation and application of the rules of racing remain within the realm of the Race Director. Indeed there are times when it is essential that the Race Director is contacted by the teams for a variety of legitimate reasons and it would amount to a knee-jerk reaction – of the wrong type – to completely constrain or cancel all forms of communication between them.

If the person in the office of Race Director demonstrates a lack of capacity to manage the pressures of varying inputs in real-time IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE RULES OF RACING then they should be replaced.

The onus now is on the FIA to demonstrate, through the investigation process, that Formula 1, with its reputation for superior technology, speed and standards is ALSO a meritocracy and repository of superior systems, processes and the people who manage them.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of SilverArrows.Net.

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