What next for F1 after questionable race direction at Abu Dhabi?

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F1 Grand Prix, GP Abu Dhabi, Yas Marina Circuitae

Helped somewhat by the heated battles between Verstappen and Hamilton seen throughout the 2021 Formula One championship, criticism on race director Michael Masi has mounted. But what next after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix?

While there have been questionable tactics on track throughout the season, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix saw two drivers go for it completely, and relatively cleanly. All credit to Max Verstappen for seizing his chance and taking his first World Championship. Credits as well to Lewis Hamilton for not letting his disappointment get the better of himself in post-race interviews.

On-track events

The bigger issue at Abu Dhabi were the decisions made by the race director and his team, and in particular, those at the very end of the race after Williams' Nicholas Latifi crashed his car 5 laps from the end.

At that time, Lewis Hamilton was leading the race over Max Verstappen by 11.909 seconds. Verstappen, on fresher medium tyres was closing in - by approximately half a second a lap over the last several laps - and had just lapped Ferrari's Charles Leclerc. In between Hamilton and Verstappen there were still Lando Norris, Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon, a threesome that had been running close to one another for several laps.

Then, on lap 53, the safety car was brought out to clear Latifi's car. As Mercedes believed the race would not be restarted, and additionally did not wish to lose track position, Hamilton was not pitted, and neither were Norris, Alonso and Ocon. Red Bull, having nothing to lose, pitted both their cars, as well as several others.

When drivers crossed the line on lap 54, Hamilton led Verstappen with Norris, Alonso, Ocon, Leclerc and Vettel in between them. Behind Verstappen in the queue were Ricciardo and Stroll, both lapped cars ahead of third placed Sergio Perez. The latter was retired the next lap, bringing Sainz into third, followed immediately by Bottas. Then the lapped Haas of Mick Schumacher, followed by Tsunoda and Gasly.

Race control decisions

Behind the scenes, a discussion started between race director Michael Masi and both Red Bull Racing and Mercedes. When Masi initially communicated he would not allow the lapped car to re-pass, Red Bull were obviously unhappy, saying they did not understand this decision. After a "let me work this out for a moment", the race director opted to let some lapped cars past.

In fact, on lap 57, a message was sent to allow all cars in between Hamilton and Verstappen to pass the safety car, enabling Verstappen to only focus on Hamilton for the final lap. For the first time in the history of the sport only a selective number of cars were given this signal. The two cars stuck in between Verstappen and Sainz were not allowed to pass, preventing Sainz to attempt to take second place. Similarly, Tsunoda was left with Schumacher in front of him, denying him the possibility to attack Bottas on the restart.

To underline the obvious lack of decisiveness at race control, some very experienced drivers were also left speechless by what happened during this 4-lap safety car period. Daniel Ricciardo for instance didn't know what to make of it.

“I was confused because I got that message that they won’t overtake,” Ricciardo said. “So in my head I thought ‘that seems okay and I guess fair because Lewis had such a lead and Max has newer tyres – and this way he has to cut through a few cars if they’re going to restart the race’.”

"Then I saw some cars overtake, so I asked ‘What do I do? Do I pass?’. And then I think Tom said ‘no, you have to stay here’. I’m honestly just speechless, I don’t know what to make of all that, I really don’t.”

Lance Stroll couldn't understand why he wasn't allowed to get past as team mate Sebastian Vettel said it took too long to let the lapped cars to overtake. Fernando Alonso complained it was very confusing and a very unusual procedure.

“When the Safety Car was out, I thought that we were able to overtake quickly, as normally happens. You see the green light of the Safety Car immediately, and then you are un-lapping yourself until they remove the car,” Alonso said.

“But we didn’t have that lap, that green signal, and then two laps after the engineer told me, ‘You will not be able to un-lap yourself, the positions will stay like this.’

“One corner later, the green light came on, I said, ‘But we have the green light’. And he said ‘Yeah, you can do it now, follow Norris. And I followed Norris’. A little bit confusing, probably.”

Race restart and appeal

The outcome is known, and on much fresher soft tyres, Verstappen had no difficulty passing Hamilton for the lead. The team lodged a protest against this restart, but it was rejected, partly because of a statement in the sporting regulations that essentially gives the race director nearly endless decision power:

15.3 The clerk of the course shall work in permanent consultation with the Race Director. The Race Director shall have overriding authority in the following matters and the clerk of the course may give orders in respect of them only with his express agreement regarding the use of the safety car.

The ruling to reject Mercedes' appeal went further than that, but essentially, it showed that there is very little a team can do against a decision made by a race director.

That Article 15.3 allows the Race Director to control the use of the safety car, which in our determination includes its deployment and withdrawal.

That although Article 48.12 may not have been applied fully, in relation to the safety car returning to the pits at the end of the following lap, Article 48.13 overrides that and once the message “Safety Car in this lap” has been displayed, it is mandatory to withdraw the safety car at the end of that lap.

That notwithstanding Mercedes’ request that the Stewards remediate the matter by amending the classification to reflect the positions at the end of the penultimate lap, this is a step that the Stewards believe is effectively shortening the race retrospectively, and hence not appropriate.

So, basically, the stewards and race director didn't feel that not applying one of the rules in the sporting regulations was an issue because another paragraph states something different. Aside from that, the decision made was evidently unfair for drivers like Sainz and Tsunoda while being advantageous for Verstappen and Bottas.

The Race Director stated that the purpose of Article 48.12 was to remove those lapped cars that would “interfere” in the racing between the leaders and that in his view Article 48.13 was the one that applied in this case.

The Race Director also stated that it had long been agreed by all the Teams that where possible it was highly desirable for the race to end in a “green” condition (i.e. not under a Safety Car).

What next?

For the neutral fan, or any fan who has watched this sport for more than a decade, it is clear that the decisions made at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix were unseen before and questionable. Perhaps Formula One didn't realise how lucky it was with Charlie Whiting at the helm, but now that other people are running the show, it is more and more evident that there is a bigger focus on entertainment. How else could one explain the decision to rush the SC back in to finish the race "racing".

Interestingly, at the 2020 Nurburging Grand Prix, Michael Masi defended exactly the opposite decision when criticism mounted on why that race had a very lengthy safety car period. At that time, Masi said: “There’s a requirement in the sporting regulations to wave all the lapped cars passed."

At another event, the Tuscan Grand Prix, several drivers felt the safety car restart was handled inappropriately. There, it was felt that the safety car lights were switched off later than usual to make the restart more unpredictable, notoriously leading into a big crash on the pit straight.

Masi had initially rejected this complaint after the race at Mugello but two weeks later it was raised in the Russian Grand Prix drivers’ briefing and appeared to be acknowledged as a factor and something to be avoided in the future.

Something's up, and it's clearly not in the best interest of the sport.