Abu Dhabi Grand Prix: Verstappen deserves maiden title but FIA’s inconsistencies dampen celebrations
Apart from being entertaining, the race in Abu Dhabi was mired in controversy, with the FIA’s interference in the race leaving a bad taste in one’s mouth
Formula 1’s much-touted season finale at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi lived up to the hype as Max Verstappen beat Lewis Hamilton to clinch his first-ever Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship. In a ‘winner takes all’ setting, Verstappen won his 10th race of the season to become the first non-Mercedes driver to win a title in the hybrid-turbo era (2014 onwards). Surprisingly, this is also Verstappen’s first championship victory ever!
After breaking into the Formula 1 scene in 2015, Verstappen’s impressive but crash-kid ways evoked two questions — could he deliver consistent performances to fight for a world championship? And if so, by when? He had the pace to win races, but could he stitch together a championship challenge?
Verstappen’s performance in 2021 was superlative — barring the race in Hungary where he was the victim of an opening lap incident, the young Dutchman finished in either first or second place in all the races he finished; the best performance for any driver on the grid. As the famous saying goes in the world of motorsport, ‘you’re allowed one mistake in a championship year’, Verstappen’s only mistake (where the blame can be fully apportioned to him) could be his error in qualifying in Saudi Arabia last weekend.
By winning the race in Abu Dhabi, Verstappen brought Hamilton’s run of race wins to a halt. After an engine change in Brazil, Hamilton scored a hattrick of race wins (Brazil, Qatar & Saudi Arabia) to overcome a 19-point deficit in the title battle and enter the final round of the season level on points with Verstappen. In fact, Hamilton’s form and Mercedes’ superior machinery made them the favourites for the season finale.
‘You Yield Or We Crash’
‘What would Verstappen do?’ was the question on everyone’s minds. Would he resort to unsportsmanlike tactics to win his maiden title? Verstappen’s ‘you yield or we crash’ approach required the FIA to issue a pre-race reminder of their powers to interfere with the title battle via penalties should the need arise. But of course, this reminder was directed to both of the title protagonists.
Apart from being entertaining, the race in Abu Dhabi was mired in controversy. Funnily enough, it wasn’t Verstappen’s questionable driving standards, but the FIA’s interference in the race that left a bad taste in one’s mouth. In the race, neither team driver put a foot wrong. They played to their strengths to try to force a result in their favour.
After snatching the lead at the start from Verstappen, Hamilton was cruising to victory in what seemed to be the faster car. Red Bull Racing used all tools available to aid Verstappen’s strategy in a bid to challenge Hamilton. However, it was only a late-race Safety Car (courtesy Nicholas Latifi’s shunt) that brought Verstappen into play.
The only other time when Verstappen looked to challenge Hamilton was on the opening lap — a well-planned lunge on the inside of Turn 6 only to touch wheels with his rival after the apex. The Mercedes driver took the escape road and this was the first instance of the FIA getting involved in the race — they ruled ‘no investigation necessary’, a call that brought back memories of the FIA’s inconsistent decisions through the season.
Enter Michael Masi
In the race in Brazil, an audacious defensive move by Verstappen was deemed legal under the FIA’s ‘let them race’ attitude. However, in the race in Saudi Arabia, a similar move by Verstappen saw him asked to return the position to Hamilton. By the precedent set by the FIA, Verstappen’s opening lap move on Hamilton should’ve been allowed, but it wasn’t.
The icing on the cake was the FIA’s calls under the Safety Car. Michael Masi, the race director, followed the rule book when deploying the Safety Car and issuing instructions for lapped cars to not unlap themselves while the track was being cleared to resume racing. However, it was the decision to allow lapped cars to unlap themselves that sparked a controversy. Typically, all lapped cars would be permitted to unlap themselves and rejoin at the back of the order. However, this time only the five cars between Verstappen and Hamilton were permitted to unlap themselves.
— Kunal Shah (@kunalashah) December 12, 2021
Did the final decision meddle with the eventual race result and cause Hamilton to lose the title? Mercedes thinks so. Was Masi right in his actions? He (including race control) thinks so. After all, he wanted the title rivals to have one racing lap to decide the winner between themselves.
So then why the bitter after taste?
It was probably because of the manner in which the decision to have the final racing lap was reached and of course, the lobbying via radio between Red Bull Racing, Mercedes and Masi.
Masi’s intent not to see the championship settled with a Safety Car finish may seem like a fair call but it probably led to a breach of the sporting regulations. With a handful of laps left, it was always going to be difficult to get all the cars to unlap themselves and into position before the Safety Car was called in.
Why Mercedes Protested
Mercedes’ protests were understandable. They were gunning for Hamilton’s record-breaking eighth title; with the regulations changing in 2022, there are no guarantees whether they will be as competitive as the previous years. They led a majority of the race only to see a unprecedented decision bring their title chase to an abrupt halt.
The FIA rejected Mercedes’ protests on seemingly fair grounds. First, Verstappen did stay behind Hamilton before the Safety Car period ended. This despite being marginally ahead in the buildup to the restart. Second, the race director can use the Safety Car at his discretion — despite choosing to let only a select group of cars unlap themselves and calling the Safety Car in the pit lane a full lap earlier. After their protests were dismissed, Mercedes immediately lodged an intention to appeal the decisions of the FIA.
Irrespective of whether Mercedes go through the appeal process, one wishes that the rollercoaster of a Formula 1 season did not end this way. Verstappen spent a majority of his first hours as ‘world champion’ waiting for race control to confirm that he had actually won. Hamilton, who lost his eighth title on the final lap of the final race of the season, would’ve felt equally helpless. Worse off was Formula 1 and the legion of fans that have cheered both drivers for the 22 races of the season.
A Worthy Champion
Finally, the FIA’s controversial ways shouldn’t dim the fact that Verstappen is a worthy world champion despite some questionable actions at select races in the season. Had it not been for his retirements in Azerbaijan, Great Britain & Italy, Verstappen may have sealed the title a few races ago.
En route to his title, the Dutchman claimed 10 pole positions and an equal number of race wins, has led more laps than the rest of the grid combined and accumulated as many as 18 podiums this year, a record in itself.
Going by numbers alone, Verstappen deserves the title more than any other driver.
Kunal Shah is an FIA-accredited print & TV journalist for Formula 1. He is also the Formula 1 Editor for the NENT Group, the official broadcaster for Formula 1 in Norway & several other European markets. He has been contributing to Firstpost since 2015.
Sundaram Ramaswami, also referred to as the F1 StatsGuru, is a Formula 1 statistician and writer. He is a social media content creator and also a stats contributor for the Motorsport Network, F1inGenerale, Pits To Podium, amongst others.
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