PF1 Verdict: Abu Dhabi controversy and that final lap

Lewis Hamilton behind the Safety Car during the Abu Dhabi GP. Yas Marina December 2021.

Lewis Hamilton leads the train behind the Safety Car during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Yas Marina December 2021.

The 2021 season ended in controversy as many expected it would – but that did not come from Max Verstappen or Lewis Hamilton, it came from Michael Masi.

After 22 grands prix, PlanetF1 delivers its final verdict on what has been a gripping – and griping – 2021 championship.

Michelle Foster

Max Verstappen is a worthy and deserving World Champion. Michael Masi is a disgrace as an F1 race director, and Formula 1’s rules are not much better.

Masi went into the season finale in Abu Dhabi declaring in his pre-race notes that any “behaviour in an unsportsmanlike manner or attempt to influence the result of a competition in a way that is contrary to sporting ethics” will be penalised.

The warning was for Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton. It should have been for Masi.

When Nicholas Latifi crashed on lap 50, the laps counted down as the marshals cleared the Williams and swept the track. And Masi told the field the cars – of which there were eight lapped cars – would not be allowed to un-lap themselves.

He then changed his mind as the clean-up operation went faster than expected, but only let the five cars between Hamilton and Verstappen un-lap themselves, setting the stage for a final-lap battle for the race win and the World title. Do the words ‘influence the result of a competition’ ring out loud? They do for me.

I’ll be honest, I’m baffled by the decision. If he had let all eight cars un-lap themselves, which would have allowed Daniel Ricciardo, Lance Stroll and the point-less Mick Schumacher to fight for a point or two, I would have been 101 per cent in favour.

But he did not. He let first and second race and left those at the back without an opportunity that they too should have been given to race. He said “motor race” to Toto Wolff – apparently he only meant at the sharp end. If I was Haas, who finished the championship without a single point on the board, I would be joining Mercedes in their protests and appeals.

Yes, he set F1 up for a bumper final lap. Yes, it meant the season did not end in a damp squib behind the Safety Car. And yes, the rules are open to interpretation as they state “any” but not all. But if you ask me, it was carried out in an ‘unsportsmanlike manner’ and leaves me to wonder if Masi is up to the job.

Jon Wilde

I think Michelle is spot-on with what she says, although personally I’m not a fan at all of drivers being able to un-lap themselves.

If they are a lap behind on merit, why should they then be able to scoot unchallenged past their faster rivals and the Safety Car and tag back on at the end of the train? They don’t always make it back around in time to do that, of course, and they didn’t in Abu Dhabi, but there have certainly been precedents.

Nevertheless, everything about that Yas Marina scenario appeared either ad hoc or contrived, whichever stance you want to take. Many, especially those with a leaning towards Mercedes, would say it was also a bit fishy.

It was just an unholy mess and with the grand prix surely attracting much the biggest audience a race has for many years, having been available free-to-air on UK television, for example, what on earth would a casual or first-time F1 viewer have made of it?

As this season has evolved, I have become less and less convinced by Michael Masi’s capabilities. But is there anyone ready to step in from the 2022 season-opener and do a better job?

A new year, a new era with new regulations. What chance a new race director as well?

The FIA may well have a big call to make.

Henry Valantine

First of all, I have to preface this by saying Max Verstappen absolutely deserved to win his first World Championship – but that race should have gone Lewis Hamilton’s way, given how superbly he drove throughout.

But sometimes in sport, there is room for an upset or a “miracle” as Christian Horner put it, but the way that result was set up has left a sour taste for a lot of people.

The FIA has always had regulations which are cut and dried, black and white and completely rigid. Hamilton getting excluded from the qualifying results at Interlagos for his rear wing opening 0.2mm too far – quite literally just a tiny bit wider than a hair’s breadth – is a perfect example as to why.

For Michael Masi to play fast and loose with their own rules, then, took everyone by surprise – especially after contradicting themselves by saying lapped cars would not be allowed to overtake initially.

To then go completely on the other foot and allow only the cars separating the title rivals to go by, only added to the feeling the whole thing was set up to play out with the excitement and drama that, let’s be honest, Netflix would have wanted. And they got just that.

Hamilton would have been fully deserving of this title as well, and I agree with Jenson Button’s view in saying I think we really have seen the best version of the Mercedes driver this year. He and his father Anthony handled themselves brilliantly after the race and showed just how sporting they are by going to congratulate both Max and Jos Verstappen afterwards, as gut-wrenching as it would have felt in the moment.

Had I been in the same situation, I can say with some confidence that I would have been the first to go straight to Masi and asked what on earth he was playing at.

I still think there’s a sting in the tail to come yet, though. The FIA would be unlikely to rule against itself in these situations, but Mercedes taking this to the FIA’s International Court of Appeal, or even further to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, means this still isn’t over.

Would Hamilton want to win his eighth title in court, though? It’s hard to say, but that’s a conversation for another day.

If nothing else, Drive to Survive is going to be a must-watch when it comes out next year. But Masi has a lot to answer for in this situation.

Jamie Woodhouse

I definitely echo Henry’s view in the sense that it felt like this season-finale was brought to us by Netflix, in conjunction with Formula 1.

Now, in certain circumstances, it is acceptable that Masi uses the elements at his disposal, whether it be the Safety Car, red flags and so on to create a bit of drama, within reason. We have seen throughout his tenure that he is not shy to do this.

However, his decision to manipulate the final lap of the championship decider, that is completely out of line, and totally unfitting for the end to such an epic Formula 1 season, perhaps the greatest of all time.

The entertainment value is important, but this is meant to be sport – the conclusion in Abu Dhabi was not sport, it was artificial entertainment.

Of course we all wanted the race to end under green flags, therefore it should have resumed for one final lap without the lapped cars being allowed to overtake.

The next best thing would have been allowing them ALL to overtake, but time did not really allow, fair enough. But the huge no-no was letting only the cars between Verstappen and Hamilton pass, at which point Hamilton on worn hard tyres, did not stand a chance against Verstappen on fresh softs from a rolling restart.

Prior to the Safety Car, Hamilton had controlled the race, and was well on his way to the victory and a record eighth World Championship – accidents happen in Formula 1, but Latifi’s crash should not have been the base for Masi to rummage through his box of tricks.

I feel just as sorry for Verstappen though, his performances across the season made him a worthy champion, but now it feels as though this first title will always have an asterisk next to it, by no fault of his own.

It is a hard job for Masi, but he brought all of the heat from Abu Dhabi upon himself.


Formula 1 controversy like no other

The call made at the end will be talked about until the end of time.