It seems like barely a moment has passed since the highly controversial and dramatic ending to the 2021 Formula One season, but the lights will go out this weekend, when 20 drivers will embark on a new season in Bahrain.
It’s a big year for the sport, coming off the closest and most dramatic title race in decades, and much will be different this season. There are radical new car designs, new regulations, and new driver lineups. Lewis Hamilton has a new teammate in George Russell; Alex Albon returns to the F1 circuit with Williams, among many other changes; the Ferraris have been impressive in testing, suggesting that their suffering over the last couple of years has been worth it; Nikita Mazepin and his father, Dmitry, and the Russian Grand Prix will not feature this year as F1 cuts ties to Russia because of its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
But despite the excitement and unpredictability greeting the opening of a new season, F1 hasn’t yet shaken off the hangover of what happened in Abu Dhabi last December. Those final laps of the season’s final race will remain with fans of the sport—new and old—forever. That moment was revisited thanks to Netflix’s customary drop of the latest season of Formula 1: Drive to Survive, which was released last week.
There are many high points of the most recent season, including Yuki Tsunoda’s exquisite swearing and Toto Wolff’s terrifying warning that “everybody has a target on their backs” this year, which he delivered while wearing a black roll neck sweater. But re-living those final moments in Abu Dhabi resurfaced questions about failures of FIA governance throughout a truly thrilling season. For instance, the infamous decision to allow a few lapped cars—rather than all of them—to unlap under the safety car allowed Max Verstappen to resume racing on Hamilton’s tail for a final lap showdown. The man who allowed that unprecedented rules interpretation, F1 race director Michael Masi, has been replaced ahead of the new season, with Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas rotating in the role, and former F1 deputy race director Herbie Blash serving in an advisory role.
The members of this new race direction team might be the most heavily scrutinized figures in all of F1 this season. The success of DTS in bringing in new fans has led to an F1 renaissance, but the ending to the 2021 season has left the sport at a unique juncture. Many new fans who might be unfamiliar with the inner workings of the sport questioned the integrity of the competition, after Masi’s decision allowed Verstappen to pit for fresh tires and overtake Hamilton to win his first Drivers’ Championship. The latest season of DTS largely glossed over the aftermath of events in Abu Dhabi, when appeals were filed, then withdrawn, amid rumors that Hamilton may walk away from the sport. There was little in DTS to quell those suspicions.
This year, F1 must focus on being a sport and not a reality show. That may sound critical, but many people—even Hamilton himself—accused the FIA of manipulating the championship race for maximum drama. The rule Masi used to justify the events in Abu Dhabi, which allowed only the cars positioned between Hamilton and Verstappen to unlap themselves, has now been changed.
On Saturday, the findings of an FIA review into the incident at Abu Dhabi will be released, and Formula One CEO Stefano Domenicali seems to understand the significance of ensuring public trust in the report. “The aim is to have a step forward to move forward from Abu Dhabi,” said Domenicali. “We’re already in Bahrain, so there is no need to talk with a different approach, rather than to say what we learn as a regulator from that last race.”
If you’re thinking that this all sounds a bit boring, you’d be right, but it’s also necessary. Sometimes sports are kinda boring, and that’s OK! These are the decisions that make the sport more trustworthy. F1 officials will have to enforce consistent punishment—that means not allowing the race director to be lobbied by team principals on a live broadcast, as was the case in Abu Dhabi. It also means, if necessary, finishing a championship-deciding race under a safety car. Boring, yes, but also necessary.
While it may mean less of a spectacle for fans, at least it would be fair. After all, sports owe us fairness before they owe us drama. This is especially true for its participants, the drivers and teams at the center of the sport that are owed clarity and fairness and integrity in terms of how the sport is governed. This isn’t to say that last year’s final race was manipulated in any way, but as I wrote in December, the inconsistency that F1 officials displayed throughout last season contributed to the contentious feelings after the finale and threatened to overshadow some of the most incredible driving we’ve ever seen.
Domenicali, as well as the FIA, mustn’t let that happen again this year and they have no reason to. The radical regulation changes unveiled this season should lead to rapid car development, and the opening few races could throw up some surprising results. The teams will have enough on their plates trying to fix porpoising issues and drivers will have to get to grips with new cars. Those in charge of directing races must ensure that the first few races—and the season as a whole—go smoothly and that they let the drivers drive. Whether people agree with Masi’s decision in Abu Dhabi, his words are something we can all agree on: “It’s called a motor race,” he famously uttered to Wolff after that final race. At the end of this season, let’s hope we’re all talking about the car racing.