The Safety Car ending of the Italian Grand Prix brought up inevitable comparisons to how the 2021 season finale in Abu Dhabi played out.
The appearance of the Safety Car with five laps remaining at Monza has triggered plenty of discussion on social media since the chequered flag, due to the similarity in events to how the final laps of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix were handled.
In the most infamous race in recent memory, then-FIA race director Michael Masi made the call to rush the process of withdrawing the Safety Car in order to resume racing with a single lap to go – a lap that resulted in the championship swinging from Lewis Hamilton to Max Verstappen as the Dutch driver used his considerably fresher soft tyres to overtake his title rival.
While the ending of the Monza race at the weekend had nowhere near the same stakes up for contention, Race Control’s handling of the Safety Car was in stark contrast to what happened in Abu Dhabi.
With Daniel Ricciardo‘s stricken McLaren unable to be recovered quickly due to being stuck in neutral, the slowness in getting a recovery truck on the scene to lift it away meant the remaining laps of the race took place behind the Safety Car, despite the incident being cleared with over a lap remaining.
With the race not resuming, it meant Verstappen was able to lead home the pack without any threat from behind – a damp squib of an ending to the race, but one that conformed exactly to the rulebook.
Abu Dhabi marks a line in the sand for race procedures
Since Liberty Media took over the ownership of Formula 1 in 2016, the American media company have helped to boost F1’s profile to become one of the most popular sports in the world. This has come about as a result of improving the sport’s accessibility, its social media reach and the success of the Netflix ‘Drive to Survive’ show, as well as improving the ‘show’ of a grand prix.
The lines between entertainment and sport have blurred as a consequence of that, with the Abu Dhabi finale marking the highest and lowest point of that changed approach.
Faced with a titanic championship fight between their two heavyweight drivers and the eyes of the world watching, a Safety Car ending to the season would have been incredibly underwhelming. In his role as race director, Masi was faced with the option of ending in dull, but correct, circumstances or a ‘Hollywood’ ending – a single lap of racing to decide the title.
Perhaps under pressure to try keeping both the FIA and Liberty happy, Masi made the wrong call that day – the Australian was simply cornered into a situation where either call would have met with negativity. However, the effect this had on the championship outcome amplified the extent and visibility of his error, and doomed him into a position in which his continuing in the role was simply not possible.
The sport crossed the line too far into the entertainment realm, with the unfortunate effect of it creating divisive lines between the respective fandoms of Hamilton and Verstappen – both of whom were innocent of any wrongdoing and merely raced under the circumstances they faced.
Monza ending shows the FIA have learned from the errors
Of course, nine months later, Masi is no longer in the picture. Under new FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem, extensive change has been brought about by the governing body. The race director role is now shared between Eduardo Freitas and Niels Wittich, and it was Wittich in charge at Monza as he steadfastly stuck to the procedures in place.
Did the show suffer? Unquestionably, yes. But was sporting integrity upheld? Also, yes.
The booing of the fans after the Italian GP, as well as the social media outcry about the nature of the ending, was exactly the type of reaction Liberty Media would certainly like to avoid in general and wished to avoid in Abu Dhabi. There is simply no pleasing everyone in these types of situations – those who watch for the show will be disappointed (as in Monza), or those who watch for the sport will be (as in Abu Dhabi).
The ending of the Monza race proved the FIA have learned from the lessons of last year – no matter what, Race Control stuck resolutely to ensuring procedure was followed, looming chequered flag or not.
“As the safety of the recovery operation is our only priority and the incident was not significant enough to require a red flag, the race ended under the Safety Car following the procedures agreed between the FIA and all competitors,” read an FIA statement after the race. “The timing of the Safety Car period within a race has no bearing on this procedure.”
It seems clear that after the dramas of Abu Dhabi, the FIA are determined to follow the letter of the law. But there is still no winning – the reactions of the drivers and team bosses after the race showed resuming the race was still the preferred option.
“Finishing behind the Safety Car is never great – not for us or for F1, for the show,” Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto said.
“To wait so much, it’s simply wrong and it’s not great for the sport. After Abu Dhabi last year, we had long discussions about how to improve because the final objective, the final aim, is to try to restart the race as soon as you can in a safe manner.
“I think today certainly it could have happened. The FIA changed a lot in that area but still, I think they need more experience and they need to do a better job because F1 deserves a better job in that respect.”
Red Bull’s Christian Horner was of a similar opinion: “We don’t want to win a race under a Safety Car. That’s something we’ve talked about for many, many years that they should finish racing – there was enough time to get that race going.
“So we share the disappointment of all the fans because it took away a grandstand finish. I think it goes against the principles of what we’ve discussed previously. So I think the biggest losers today, unfortunately, were the fans, but we need to look quickly to address that.”
In other words, no praise for the FIA for doing what they were supposed to do…
What more can the FIA do without further rule changes?
Given the respective interests of the team bosses in racing (when on-track events suit them), the sport’s owners in entertainment and viewership and the governing body in ensuring safety and following the rulebook, it is perhaps no surprise that in the biggest title showdown of recent years, Race Control made a huge mistake when faced with such pressurised circumstances last year.
The next obvious step in the march towards ‘entertainment’ is that of red flags to stop the race – even if red flags are unnecessary. That makes the restart essentially a lottery and spits in the face of what makes F1 a sport – it is simply not a route F1 should pursue unless entertainment is the name of the game ahead of integrity.
As Oliver Harden pointed out in our Italian GP conclusions: “Asking incidents that happen in the final five laps of the race to be treated differently to those that happen in the first five would be asking for trouble, setting a disturbing precedent and encouraging the kind of inconsistency for which F1’s authorities are regularly vilified.”
Having addressed the weaknesses Abu Dhabi revealed – by means of a virtual Race Control, a change of race directors, removal of team boss to Race Control radio and a tightening-up in the wording of the regulations for unlapping procedures – Ben Sulayem has taken a proactive and steadfast approach to the FIA, ensuring the likes of that huge error in judgement will not happen again.
Perhaps, when evidence of that presents itself – such as the boring but correct ending at Monza – the governing body should be praised, rather than denigrated.