'Why did Michael Masi do what he did in Abu Dhabi?' Johnny Herbert

“We do this to win races in the most honourable way, and that’s not how it’s turned out in Abu Dhabi... it should never happen again in Formula 1"

Johnny Herbert


My verdict on the last-lap shootout that decided the 2021 Formula 1 World Championship? The FIA needs to have a hard think about how it operates grands prix. This should never have happened and it should never happen again.

There needs to be a review about every aspect, not just this one issue. It’s also about track limits and the inconsistency of what is allowed corner to corner. What happened in Brazil between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, and how Max wasn’t penalised for running Lewis out wide at Turn 4, that was the game-changer.

In Abu Dhabi, the decision on the lapped cars and how it was implemented was rushed. At one moment the lapped cars were not allowed to unlap themselves – then suddenly it was all happening. Usually with the stewards once that message has gone out you can’t withdraw it. But it was this time. Then it was wrong to let some of the cars past and not all.

Race director Michael Masi was eager to have this one-lap shootout. I give him credit for allowing racing to happen more since he came on board after dear Charlie Whiting died. But this leaves a bitter taste. Lewis had done nothing wrong; Red Bull had made the right calls on the strategy because that was all that they could do to try and beat him. It seemed unfair that Lewis lost it when he had no chance of a fight.

So what should have happened? The track was clear, but there wasn’t time to let the unlapped cars past. They should have been released to race with the five unlapped cars remaining in between Hamilton and Verstappen. That way it could have been a two-lap shootout, with Max having to pass those cars before he got to Lewis. That’s more racy than giving Max such an advantage.

In a normal race without so much riding on it, the grand prix probably would have finished under the safety car. Even with my TV head on, I would have accepted that because prior to the safety car Max was never in a position where he was going to beat Lewis. Hamilton’s only mistake was that first lap when Max passed him but ran him off the circuit and then he didn’t give the place back. I think he should have. But even taking that into consideration, he was going to beat Max fair and square. Then there was help from above.

Is this an indication that entertainment for television takes precedence over the sport? I hope not. I have to admit from my time racing to now working for Sky F1 I have realised entertainment is the most important thing, because there is so much competition with other sports and you are fighting for attention. But what we’ve had this year has been positive for F1 because it has got people talking about it again, which hasn’t been the case for a long time. We didn’t need the last lap to make it exciting.

I would have been very happy if Lewis had won his eighth title and I’m just as happy that Max won it. I don’t have a favourite. My gut instinct is to go for the guy who gives me the wow factor, and I get that from both of them. I hope it was not done from a TV perspective, because that’s not what the sport is all about. But for me the fundamental rawness of why we do this is to win races in the most honourable way, and that’s not how it turned out this time. Not that it was Max’s fault.

Is it partly because the teams are battering Masi with messages over what he should and shouldn’t do? They can throw a lot in his head, to sway him. Is that part of it? It shouldn’t be. Masi’s job is huge and even with all the information he has it’s a tough one. But I have to say, I don’t know why he did what he did.

After the flag, it was the best emotion I’ve heard from a cockpit from a new world champion, and I’m glad for Max. He’s deserved to be a champion from his very first race in F1. As for Lewis, I’ll give him the biggest credit I’ve given anyone. He dealt with it brilliantly. He was so gracious in the way he accepted defeat. That was probably the most powerful thing for me over the weekend. He had those couple of minutes when he sat in the car, getting his thoughts together. He’d driven brilliantly, got himself back into the championship in recent races, controlled this one – and then through no fault of his own it was taken away. It was wrong – and the FIA can’t carry on like this.

Johnny Herbert was a Formula 1 driver from 1989-2000 and a Le Mans winner in 1991. He is a regular contributor to Sky Sports F1
Follow Johnny on Twitter @johnnyherbertf1