F1's sink or swim moment after Muddle in the Marina: The Editor
The 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix fiasco highlights a growing problem for F1 — and one that it needs to stamp out
In Argentina they do not talk about Diego Maradona’s Hand of God goal when discussing their team’s triumph in the 1986 football World Cup. Just like in this country we do not dwell on the umpiring error that awarded England an extra run and ultimately victory against New Zealand in the 2019 cricket World Cup. And it is safe to say that on the streets of Amsterdam, Dutch fans will not be unduly delayed in their celebrations by the fact that Michael Masi, the race director of the deciding grand prix of the season, made what can euphemistically be called an almighty cock up that gifted the race and therefore Formula 1 world driver’s title to Max Verstappen.
Such is the nature of sport – like war, its history is written by the victors.
But for the record we can say here that Lewis Hamilton was denied certain victory and with it his coveted eighth world title not through any shortcomings on his part or his team’s, but by an official who misinterpreted the rules. To be clear, the travesty that played out in front of the billionaire yachts moored trackside at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will go down as a day of infamy in the sport’s history. It was billed as the ‘Decider in the Desert’, but turned into the Muddle in the Marina. To understand how that decision was made please read Mark Hughes’s brilliant piece on page 80.
It would be churlish not to congratulate Max for his part in a riveting season and for taking the battle to Lewis. Looking at the season as a whole no one disputes he is a worthy champion. He led 652 laps more than double Lewis’s 303. He finished 15 of the 22 races leading the championship. And, including Abu Dhabi, he won 10 races compared to eight for Lewis. He raced with a pugnaciousness that introduced a thrilling aura of unpredictability and jeopardy to the season.
“Hamilton exclaimed: ‘It’s been manipulated!’ Norris said it’s ‘made for TV’”
But there is no escaping the fact that the way in which his world championship was won – via an artificial intervention by the stewards that ensured a nail-biting final lap even while going directly against the FIA’s own rules – illustrates a deeper and growing problem within Formula 1.
We reported last month on the ‘Netflixification’ of the sport, after the runaway success of the channel’s Drive to Survive
docu-drama, and the desire by some in F1 to achieve TV cut-through seemingly at any cost – even the integrity of the sport. Entertainment at the cost of sporting authenticity. Conspiracy theorists who see patterns in anything will point to the judgement made by Masi to allow five lapped cars to pass Lewis on the final lap allowing Max on fresher tyres a clear run at the Mercedes as evidence that the race was ‘rigged’; that Masi was under pressure from commercial forces desperate for a last lap spectacular to create an artificial race.
Such theories seem unlikely. Instead it appears that Masi, a man with a background in Australian V8 racing – not known for its lack of spectacle – put himself under pressure by instinctively wanting to make a motor race of it. So he ended up making a half call which seemed like a good compromise and would avoid the spectacle of the grand prix finishing under yellow flag conditions, something all teams had previously agreed should be avoided where possible. It was the wrong call and no doubt he is regretting it, but it was not one driven by commercial imperatives.
The danger for F1 is that many people within the sport are beginning to suspect the opposite. It is ironic that Verstappen has been vociferous in his criticism of Netflix for distorting the reality of F1 in order to appear more dramatic. But now he is not alone. Lewis Hamilton in his radio message on the final lap exclaimed: “It’s been manipulated!” George Russell called the result “unacceptable”; Lando Norris said it’s “made for TV”.
On social media one fan posted: “The FIA just fixed a race and threw away the rule book so it’d make a good Drive to Survive episode. Another said: “Formula 1 has become the WWE of motor sports. The race is scripted and it’s starting to feel like Drive to Survive in real life.”
For a sport that prides itself on its integrity and authenticity such suspicions cannot be allowed to take root. The review ordered by the FIA into what went wrong in Abu Dhabi is a good place to start. But it won’t mean anything unless it comes up with clear recommendations to ensure nothing like this happens again.
It must at the very least ensure that officials have enough support (where was Masi’s equivalent of Charlie Whiting’s Herbie Blash?) and experience to make the right calls. It must shield them from the intense lobbying of team principals so they can make clear decisions. It must, above all, ensure that its officials and by extension the sport itself cannot be “tarnished” (its word) with the suspicion of inauthenticity.
As Toto Wolff said in a frosty statement when withdrawing Mercedes’ legal challenge to the result: “Lewis and I are disillusioned. Not with the sport – we love the sport because the stopwatch never lies. But if we break that fundamental principle of sporting fairness and authenticity then suddenly the stopwatch doesn’t become relevant any more because you’re exposed to random decision-making.”
Lewis Hamilton may have lost the world title but he gained a prefix. The boy from Stevenage is now Sir Lewis – we congratulate him heartily on this incredible achievement. And we wish him, and you our readers, a very Happy New Year!
Joe Dunn, editor
Follow Joe on Twitter @joedunn90