MARTIN SAMUEL: Max Verstappen’s last lap triumph in Abu Dhabi over Lewis Hamilton was a STOLEN title… by the stewards, the race director and by Formula One’s need for drama
- Max Verstappen passed Lewis Hamilton on the last lap to become F1 champion
- The gap between the pair was closed up after late safety car drama
- Red Bull would be up in arms if they lost the championship in the same way
- Michael Masi may have got the title decided in a court of appeal or arbitration
- Hamilton deserved to win the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix over the Dutchman
It was billed as Formula One’s greatest climax. So F1 gave the world what it wanted. Yet, in doing so, the sport appeared to reverse over the concept of fairness, of sporting justice and a level playing field. It did a wheel spin on the rulebook and decided the title on the need for the promised drama and spectacle. And, watching, we loved it.
This will no doubt stream well on Netflix at some future date. Right now, however, sober reflection on how Max Verstappen came to be 2021’s champion driver is leaving more than a few observers feeling nonplussed, not to mention a little queasy.
Will F1 win new fans with a manufactured finish that is close to incomprehensible outside the four walls of race control, that seems to fly in the face of fair-mindedness?
Max Verstappen (right) won the championship after passing Lewis Hamilton on the final lap
Hamilton looked certain to win the title before a late-race safety car bunched the pack up
Mercedes felt rules weren’t applied regarding lapped cars being allowed to unlap themselves
Was this the first Drive To Survive title, won on what it is believed the audience demands? Michael Masi’s official title is race director, but isn’t he taking the second part of that role too much to heart?
Here was orchestrated action, strings pulled, plot-line and drama almost scripted from the director’s chair, a hasty late rewrite. Whatever the teams and their drivers signed up for this season, it surely wasn’t The Truman Show.
Red Bull were happy on Sunday night, but would be up in arms if this happened to them.
There was a reason that on the balcony of the Paddock Club at turn one of the Abu Dhabi circuit, stood Paul Harris of Monckton Chambers. If Formula One was just about having the fastest car, Mercedes wouldn’t have felt the need to engage the Barrister of the Year for 2021, as awarded by the Litigation Tracker team of The Lawyer.
Max Verstappen celebrates after Mercedes had two different protests rejected by the FIA
Harris represented Manchester City against UEFA at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. For a City supporter, as he is, that was something of a late away win. This, it is fair to say, must have felt like losing to a 90th-minute offside winner at Old Trafford, punched into the net by the Manchester United centre forward, while the referee was unconscious, having been knocked over while tying his boot laces, and facing the wrong way. He wakes up, gives the goal, then immediately blows the final whistle.
Forget, for a moment, whether Verstappen deserved his prize over the year. Forget whether it is good for motor racing to have a new champion, to have broken the domination of Lewis Hamilton. Forget even that anyone who loves sport thinks finals and titles should be decided in the arena in the most dramatic way possible — and this was.
It still doesn’t make it right. By trying to shape and deliver the finish the season deserved, Masi may have decreed instead that it gets decided in a court of appeal or arbitration.
Hamilton reacted sportingly after the race despite his gutting defeat in Abu Dhabi
What happened prior to the final lap in Abu Dhabi on Sunday will be picked over, the way F1 fanatics still discuss the rights and wrongs of the Senna-Prost era, or of Michael Schumacher’s dirtiest tricks. But first it may be debated by silks and independent arbiters.
Not that sharp practice gave Verstappen the drivers’ championship against all odds. He did that himself over one season and one very special final lap here. How he came to be level with Hamilton for that lap, however, is the issue that will concern Mercedes’ legal team and maybe that of the FIA over the coming days. The watching world may have revelled in the spectacle of a single lap shoot-out for the drivers’ championship, but the way that was set up was as unfathomable as it was seemingly unfair.
Mercedes immediately lodged two protests, which they unsurprisingly lost given the body considering the appeals had already presented the trophy and sent celebratory fireworks into the night sky.
Beyond that, it was suggested, all options remained open although wise heads feel Mercedes would be smart not to antagonise the FIA further.
Decisions made, decisions reversed, instructions given, instructions modified. You’ll find the baffling specifics elsewhere
The quick capsule review is that Hamilton was 12 seconds ahead on lap 52 of 58, Nicholas Latifi of Williams bunged his car into a wall at turn 14 one lap later and the race continued under a safety car, during which Verstappen pitted for new, fast, soft tyres. Then when it reconvened with a lap to go, the Dutchman was allowed to start ahead of all the lapped traffic that would have sat between him and the leader.
WHO IS MICHAEL MASI?
Michael Masi is the Australian who has been F1 race director since 2019. He is also F1 safety delegate, permanent starter, head of F1’s technical department and is responsible for the safe running and operation of every grand prix.
How long has he worked as race director?
Masi was promoted after the sudden death of Charlie Whiting.
Has he been involved in anything controversial?
Yes, he was responsible for the abandoning of the Belgian Grand Prix earlier in 2021. He tried to get the race under way and used his powers to suspend the race clock but it was abandoned after just a handful of safety car laps
Race director Michael Masi has faced criticism for his safety car call on Sunday
Hamilton had to go through those cars in real time, Verstappen didn’t. He even admitted that, had the race played out without Latifi’s misjudgment, there is no way he would have caught Hamilton. It became the finale F1 wanted, except Hamilton’s tyres were older and slower and he was at a huge disadvantage.
Meaning Verstappen won — the race and the championship. Crazy, yes. Exciting, yes. Dramatic, yes. The way a sporting contest should ideally be decided? Undoubtedly. But fair? Correct? Logical? Reasonable? It is mighty hard to argue that case, even if the Barrister of the Year wasn’t staring daggers at you across the room.
It was a stolen title — by the stewards, by the race director, by the need for drama. And that’s not Red Bull’s fault. They, Verstappen, did nothing wrong. He just wasn’t the best driver on the day. And this was all about being best on the day. If it was fair.
In defence of Verstappen, he’s had a brilliant season. Prior to the race a lot of his contemporaries — and not just those with an axe to grind against Hamilton — said he was the driver of the year. He’s been the man most likely to challenge Hamilton’s domination for some years. He’s brave, he’s bold, a little reckless on occasion, and young. It’s an exciting package.
Hamilton deserved to win the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix would have handed him the title
And for all the advantage handed him by Masi, Verstappen still had to make that final lap pass. He wasn’t overtaking Ernie the milkman, either. This was the seven-time world champion, arguably the greatest driver the sport has ever seen and in the best car.
Verstappen had to find a way past Hamilton and did. He is the first driver since 2008 to win the title in a lesser vehicle because Mercedes claimed the constructors’ championship. In 2008, that was Hamilton’s first title. Verstappen was 11 at the time.
It can also be argued Red Bull’s strategy was a huge factor. Hamilton was questioning the wisdom of Mercedes keeping him out on hard tyres long before misfortune made that a mistake.
With a different strategy that single lap shoot-out would have been more of a contest. Verstappen maybe did the adjudicators no favours by making it look so easy.
Verstappen had a brilliant season and still had to make that last lap pass despite his good luck
‘It’s a motor race, we went motor racing,’ Masi snapped at Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff when he first protested about the final lap. And that’s a valid observation.
A procession of drivers behind a safety car all the way to the chequered flag would have been a thoroughly unsatisfactory end to a wonderful season, but it would have delivered the just result on the day.
Hamilton deserved to win the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and, if doing so made him drivers’ champion, that was how it should be.
Yet Masi appeared to consider the optics. The eyes of the world on Formula 1, wanting to witness a great race and a wonderful piece of high octane theatre. After so many years when F1 was decried as dull and predictable, this was his sport’s great chance, truly its drive to survive. So Masi decided to offer that instead.
And we get it. Just as we get that football would be a lot more exciting if, with five minutes to go, the referee decided to hand two goals to the losing team, send a player off from the other side and announce next goal wins it. We’d all be glued to that finale. Doesn’t make it fair, though. Doesn’t make it sporting. Doesn’t make it right.
In Abu Dhabi, Formula One crossed the divide between competition and the reality shows.
WHO IS NICHOLAS LATIFI?
Nicholas Latifi is a 26-year-old Canadian of Iran-Italian extraction from a wealthy family and currently driving for Williams.
What did he do?
He inadvertently presented Red Bull with the opportunity to take the world title bid to a final-lap decider. As team principal Christian Horner put it: ‘He’ll be getting a lifetime supply of Red Bull.’
His spectacular crash forced the deployment of the safety car just as it looked like Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes was heading to a record eighth title. Incidentally, Latifi’s car has a Mercedes engine.
What is his driving background?
He made his F1 debut in Austria in 2020 and has not pulled up any trees since, although he was runner-up in Formula Two in 2019.
Is he prone to crashing?
During qualifying for the Dutch Grand Prix, he spun out at high speed, causing a red flag stoppage that led to a significant delay.
The safety car had been brought out after Nicholas Latifi’s late-race crash in Abu Dhabi
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