Congratulations to Max Verstappen on his first Formula 1 world championship, hard-won with speed, guile and determination and a magnificent team behind him, over 22 races at just 24 years old.
And simply just ‘wow and well done’ for an incredible eighth straight constructors’ championship title for the mighty Mercedes team.
I wanted to start this column with some celebratory words as despite the most incredible and exciting season of Formula 1, arguably the best in its 70+ year history, there’s been mostly vitriol and anger from a heavily polarised paddock and fan base along the way. That’s such a shame.
Does Max deserve the championship? Of course he does. He led 652 laps compared with Lewis’ 303 laps. He departed 15 of the 22 races leading the championship including the last seven. He won 10 races compared to eight for Lewis (yes I know, we’ll get onto that shortly), and it was 18 podiums playing 17. And he didn’t have the best of luck along the way, until the last few miles of course.
Lewis would equally have deserved his eighth title, I wish they could share it to be frank. His raw speed, consistency, determination, style, class, and stamina, particularly in the closing stages, was outstanding as he delivered another blistering start in his 288th GP at approaching 37 years old.
The final few laps in Abu Dhabi, when the world’s eyes were on us in staggering numbers, were not our finest moment and some things have to change this winter. We certainly confused our fans on Sunday.
Masi’s tough job made even harder by F1 teams
Michael Masi is the Race Director, taking over from our dear friend Charlie Whiting who sadly died in his Melbourne hotel room literally on the eve of the 2019 F1 season. Michael has strong history directing the Australian V8 series, not exactly a sleepy job I’d imagine but nothing like the spotlight and pressure of multi-billion-dollar global F1.
Now if Michael wants to continue, and F1 and the governing body the FIA want to keep him, then things must change. Charlie largely wrote the current 98-page sporting regulations, which work hand in hand with the 80-page bilingual Sporting Code. There are also several other agreements and ambitions created in various working groups over the years.
I don’t need to make excuses for anyone but here are some facts. F1 and the FIA have just delivered 39 races in 17 months in a global pandemic, including several hurriedly assembled events and venues. When we stepped off the 13hour 45minute flight from Mexico City to Doha, Masi immediately boarded another plane to Jeddah to see the new facility which was barely going to be ready in time. Like Charlie, he’s responsible for signing these things off, except we have a lot more races in far-reaching places now.
Charlie W was rightly revered and feared in equal measure, and any sign of a team playing games in any way would quickly see Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley wading in, and then you were in trouble. Furthermore, Charlie had his ultimate wingman Herbie Blash, a man who had attended more F1 races than anybody else, by his side. They ate together pretty much every evening too; such was their trust and bond. Herbie was effectively the Race Director for the first lap or two while Charlie returned from the starter’s rostrum in what were usually 15-18 race seasons.
Jean Todt retires shortly after 12 years as President of the FIA, where he has done an incredible amount of work particularly on road safety, it’s an all-encompassing role. However, while we await a new President and his supporting team I imagine the FIA is a little rudderless, and certainly not feared by the teams who lived in great trepidation of Mosley and the ‘bringing the sport into disrepute’ clause.
Until this year any correspondence from the pit wall to race control was not broadcast, and it’s totally unacceptable to hear team bosses and team managers even pre-empting situations and lobbying. They are only doing their jobs but in earlier days would have been given short shrift by Charlie.
Toto Wolff’s outrageous call to Masi to lobby for no safety car for Antonio Giovinazzi’s stricken Alfa Romeo in Abu Dhabi, and Christian Horner telling the world seven days earlier how much F1 missed Charlie Whiting because the restart grid in Saudi Arabia felt like a ‘Souk negotiation’, which didn’t age well for him, simply wouldn’t have happened before.
They are super competitive and under pressure people using all the tools available to them, and the power base and direction of communication has totally changed. Those tools need to be more regulated.
And so, in what should have been one of F1’s finest ever moments instead we had anger and confusion as Nicholas Latifi, fresh from an off-track skirmish in the previous corners, lost his Williams into the wall at the newly speeded up turn 14.
Hamilton had one hand stretched out towards the title
Before then Lewis had led reasonably comfortably after seizing the lead away from the start – Red Bull have some work to do there – using his medium compound tyres to very good effect. Once again he and Max began gapping the field at a fast rate, but Mercedes had this covered and simply matched Red Bull as they dumped Max’s soft compound tyres by pitting a lap later on the 14th tour.
This would leave a testing 45 and 44 laps respectively to the end for both drivers and we heard Mercedes’ radio discussion including Lewis saying he was unsure they would last, and being asked which compound tyres he would prefer should there be a safety car….
When that ‘virtual safety car’ arrived on lap 35 despite Toto’s protestations, Mercedes didn’t pit Hamilton, they were desperate to keep track position. This was too cautious and perhaps driven consciously by not wanting to risk having to pass Verstappen. His aggressive driving style with nothing to lose was likely in their psyche and decision-making process. If Max had stayed out, given Lewis’ superior speed and then on fresher tyres he would surely have retaken the lead at some point providing he could safely navigate past.
Nonetheless Lewis still had the speed to win comfortably and had Max’s charge on fresh hard tyres after the ‘virtual safety car’ well covered.
This was despite losing eight seconds being held up by Checo Perez in the sister Red Bull who had stayed out on his original tyres. It was good team play, something I’d flagged up the potential of very early in commentary and would have undoubtedly orchestrated myself on the Red Bull pitwall, but it doesn’t make me feel particularly proud for F1.
Hamilton had one hand stretched out towards the title, having dominated the race, until that full safety car for Latifi’s shunt on lap 53 of the 58 scheduled. The Williams would need lifting away and so a vehicle and marshals would be on track.
The dramatic finale and what could F1 have done differently?
In hindsight this should have been a red flag so that everyone could reset, the track could be cleared, and we’d have a straight final championship duel on matching tyres from a standing start. However that would set a precedent for more red flags in the future. As potentially could have happened back in Azerbaijan, we don’t want a race, and so championship, finishing with the cars lined up stationary in the pit lane.
There are just under one thousand five hundred words in the sporting regulations defining the full safety car procedure including letting lapped cars through. Once cars inevitably start pitting, especially the leaders, it’s not entirely straightforward to establish who is actually a lap down. Here’s how they are defined;
“This will only apply to cars that were lapped at the time they crossed the Line at the end of the lap during which they crossed the first Safety Car line for the second time after the safety car was deployed”
So that’s clear then…
Meanwhile the Race Director must manage the incident on track with safety as a priority, attend to the pitwall lobbying from teams demanding to control what happens next or to find out if they can unlap themselves, gather up the cars still in the race, and restart as soon as possible.
This regulation was introduced long ago to make sure lapped cars didn’t get in the way of a leading battle.
Nobody wants to see a safety-car finish to any GP but there’s a procedure laid out where on the last lap the safety car can take to the pitlane and without any further overtaking the field can take the chequered flag. This generates all the right images without a road car with flashing lights apparently winning the race.
Masi understandably didn’t want to release the lapped cars until the track was clear of the crashed car, a recovery vehicle, and people. The last two aspects will rightly forever be sensitive topics in motorsport. It’s optional whether it’s deemed safe enough to let lapped cars unlap themselves, of course a safety car always means either an accident, track debris, or heavy rain, but the regulations say ‘any lapped cars’ and not ‘all’.
Cue the lawyers as just the key five were waved through to put Verstappen directly behind and even alongside Hamilton for the last lap charge. Mercedes will forever feel that the last lap was duty bound to be behind the safety car.
Verstappen takes advantage, angry Mercedes and why F1 was ‘between rock and a hard place’
Max would brake super late and sensationally take the lead in the new turn five hairpin and then weave his way down the straight to defend against Lewis’ charge back at him despite his worn-out hard compound tyres.
Max would normally have been warned by the stewards for weaving but he didn’t care, it was the last lap and he simply held the inside line down the next long straight towards turn nine. There’d be no overtaking from there to the finish line given the track layout.
And so what had just happened was a hybrid interpretation of those 1500 words which created a scenario which absolutely decided that Verstappen on a fresh set of soft compound tyres as Red Bull had pitted again with nothing to lose, would be world champion instead of Hamilton.
I’m not going to make any accusations here whatsoever that there was any malice or intent in those decisions and actions because I have zero evidence or expectations in that respect, and you’ve all made your minds up anyway. I can understand why Mercedes and team Hamilton feel aggrieved, just as Red Bull would have done if the race finished behind the safety car. Talk about being between rock and a hard place.
I’ve said for years that lapped drivers should fall back behind the runners on the lead lap so as not to prolong the safety car procedure. Also the Race Director now needs a trusted and experienced wing man, especially in next year’s 23-race marathon including a new venue in Miami, and teams should be very limited on the number of times they can challenge race control mid-race throughout a season so they are used more strategically when there’s a fair and relevant point to be made. We simply can’t have the referee bullied like that.
Thank you for your company and F1 support throughout this season, I hope you enjoyed it overall. Have a great festive break with your family and friends, and let’s eagerly anticipate what the dramatically changed 2022 cars can achieve next season.