So it’s official: Max Verstappen is the Formula 1 world champion, and will remain so after Mercedes announced Thursday it would withdraw its appeal of Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the final race of the 2021 season.
In the days since Verstappen bested Lewis Hamilton to earn his first F1 driver’s title, race director Michael Masi’s hugely controversial call to go against traditional safety car protocol has been picked apart by everyone from former world champions to newcomers to the sport. The decision allowed lapped cars between Hamilton and Verstappen to overtake and rejoin the back of the pack, bunching up the two championship leaders before the final lap.
No one could argue that Masi’s call didn’t hugely benefit Red Bull and Verstappen, who got directly behind Hamilton and drove on new soft compound tires. (The seven-time world champion, meanwhile, was on the slowest compound available, and his tires were over half the race-distance old.) At that point, the outcome—however heartbreaking it would be for Mercedes and Hamilton—seemed inevitable.
After the race, former world champion Jenson Button said Masi’s choice “definitely went Max’s way, only letting those five cars past. But then earlier in the race, it kind of went Lewis’s way,” referring to an incident on Lap 1 between Hamilton and Verstappen that went unpunished. George Russell—who will join Hamilton at Mercedes next year—tweeted, “This is unacceptable!” Damon Hill suggested Mercedes had made a mistake in not pitting Hamilton for fresh tires. “Red Bull took the gamble,” said Hill. “Mercedes were conservative.”
Max is an absolutely fantastic driver who has had an incredible season and I have nothing but huge respect for him, but what just happened is absolutely unacceptable. I cannot believe what we’ve just seen.— George Russell (@GeorgeRussell63) December 12, 2021
Whether people agreed with the call or outcome, it was undoubtedly brutal for Hamilton and raised a number of questions about how the FIA polices the sport. Was the decision unprecedented? Yep. Confusing? Absolutely. Illegal? Technically, no, due to the overriding authority that the race director has over decision-making during a Grand Prix. But it was still a wildly cruel refereeing call that altered the outcome of the race and the championship at large.
Perhaps the most perplexing part of Sunday’s climax is that other options were available. Despite suggesting before the race that he wouldn’t, Masi could have issued a red flag following Nicholas Latifi’s crash on Lap 52. If he had, all cars would have been required to return to the pit lane and allowed to fit fresh tires for when the race resumed. Instead of a contentious one-lap shootout for the championship, we would have been treated to a six-lap sprint that, whoever had won, would have been completely free of controversy.
That call was also the latest in a series of questionable—or at least confusing—decisions that the FIA has made this year. Imola’s standings changed dramatically after post-race penalties, whereas similar incidents that occurred later in the year—many including Hamilton and Verstappen—went unpunished. It was the inconsistency that irked. And all of those choices have helped expand a bind that the governing body found itself in long before this year’s winter testing.
Just days before the 2019 season opener in Melbourne, legendary former race director Charlie Whiting died suddenly from a pulmonary embolism. Whiting was a giant of F1; hugely admired, respected, and even feared by team principals up and down the paddock. Sky and ESPN co-commentator Martin Brundle described Whiting as omnipresent: “He was master of the track and all sporting and technical procedures. ‘Ask Charlie’ was a common phrase for everyone.”
Whiting was a stickler for the rules—so much so that the 2005 U.S. Grand Prix took part with just six cars after Michelin brought faulty tires to the track and Whiting refused to make any exceptions. In continuing his description of Whiting, Brundle said, “Whilst not everyone agreed with every decision he made, far from it sometimes, we all knew that he was the calm, consistent control that benefited us all in the end.”
Years before his death, Whiting softened his stance slightly, creating more space for the race stewards to decide where and when to investigate and apply penalties. He also offered slight changes in rules to allow races to be won on the track, rather than in the stewards room.
But after Whiting’s death, Masi—who had been F1’s deputy race director for just a single year—was thrust into the role. And in the ensuing seasons, he’s applied a more open dialogue with teams, intending to communicate decisions and listen to complaints. This sounds great in theory, especially after Whiting’s hard line. But in reality, the teams have used this to relentlessly lobby throughout Grand Prixs, and entire seasons.
Drivers have often been accused of crossing the line this year: Verstappen’s car ended up on top of Hamilton’s in Monza, with the car’s halo preventing serious injury to the Brit. Hamilton clipped Verstappen at Silverstone, and the Red Bull driver ended up in the wall—and in the hospital, thanks to an impact of 51Gs. And the chaos wasn’t exclusive to the championship contenders: Russell clashed with Valtteri Bottas—whose Mercedes seat he will inherit next season—at Imola, taking both drivers out. But even so, we expect this kind of behavior from drivers. As Ayrton Senna once said, “If you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver.”
More often this season, though, it was the behavior of the team principals that whipped things into a frenzy. Red Bull’s Christian Horner and Mercedes’s Toto Wolff exchanged veiled digs and shared frosty press conferences throughout the season. They could be heard on the radio in many races complaining to Masi about penalties, or a lack thereof, and they extended their discontent into appeals and constant questions. The drivers may have occasionally crossed the line, but they were racing. The principals were not.
That storm calmed a bit after the final race, as Wolff and Mercedes directed their sights at the FIA rather than Red Bull. “I would have been totally OK with Max and Red Bull winning the championship on Sunday, and this situation is nothing to do with Max,” said Wolff in a press conference on Thursday about the team’s withdrawn appeal. “He is a worthy champion, his driving is exceptional, and Red Bull are fierce competitors, and I have the greatest respect [for] the people working there.”
Rather, Mercedes said, the purpose of their appeal was to challenge the FIA on their policies and try to make lasting change. In Mercedes’s announcement of the withdrawal of their appeal, it said the FIA has agreed to a commission to ensure that something like this never happens again. “We had a good dialogue with the FIA over the last few days,” said Wolff. “The commission that [has been] set in place, I have trust and faith that we will formulate together, with all competitors, the drivers and the other teams, the right decisions and actions to avoid such a scenario in the future.”
That action should ultimately be good for the sport, and for fans who spent a good chunk of this year debating rules and enforcements rather than the championship itself. But it is sad that this fallout may be the lasting memory of such a wonderful F1 season, because what we have seen this year is anything but normal.
Formula 1 seasons aren’t usually like this. The last time two drivers went into the final race level on points was 47 years ago, in a season with fewer races, and when the spread of points awarded from first to 10th was much narrower. This time, the greatness we were able to witness for 23 hard-fought races is in danger of being forgotten. Two generational drivers were able to compete at different points in their careers thanks to two phenomenal cars. Their dominance was such that Hamilton’s teammate, Valtteri Bottas, finished 161.5 points behind him, and Sergio Perez ended 205.5 points behind Verstappen in the other Red Bull. Hamilton and Verstappen have driven to an astonishing level and gifted the sport with moments that will go down in history.
For example, Hamilton’s performance in Sao Paulo—which saw him overcome numerous positional penalties to win—was arguably one of the best drives by any driver, ever. Verstappen’s final qualifying lap in Saudi Arabia was on course to be the single best lap of the season, until—eager to correct locking up his front left—he put it into the wall coming out of the final corner. They shared 18 wins and 35 podiums between them.
In addition, both pushed the other to the limit. That began in the season’s opening race in Bahrain and lasted until those final moments in Abu Dhabi.
Whoever ended up with the title on Sunday would have been more than worthy. However, it is hard not to feel disappointed by the fact that, in a season that delivered so much, a single decision—one made by neither driver—overshadowed the greatness we all witnessed. Hamilton is an all-time driver; Verstappen an emerging one. But skill and ferocity like this doesn’t come around too often, and when it does, it shouldn’t be taken for granted. As Formula 1 continues to navigate its boom next season, it has a duty to provide consistency in its governance. Let the greatness be what dominates the headlines, not the decisions.