'I want to love F1 again but the Abu Dhabi debacle is still too raw' 

F1

The shock of last year's Abu Dhabi F1 season-decider may have receded, but for swathes of die-hard fans like Richard Aucock, the bitter taste remains and F1 risks losing them for good

Lewis Hamilton Max Verstappen Abu Dhabi podium

The way in which Max Verstappen won the 2021 F1 championship still grates for large numbers of fans

Florent Gooden/DPPI

I normally spend Christmas gorging on YouTube videos of classic F1 races. Relive the finest battles. Devour the top 10 moments of the sport’s legends. But not this year. Since Abu Dhabi 2021, I’ve been studiously avoiding anything to do with F1. It’s simply too painful and too infuriating.

This struck me as I returned to work after Christmas. Again, in idle moments, I habitually check the F1 news sites. But not anymore. When out for a walk, I usually pop on an F1 podcast. These days, they’ve been replaced by news and history. From fully-consumed, to full withdrawal, with all the symptoms. F1, it seems, is tainted.

I recently tweeted this, in a rather impassioned way – and was amazed by the reaction. While a minority disagree, many thousands of people feel the same. I am not alone. So why has F1 become such a highly-charged disappointment, and what might bring me back?

It all goes back to Abu Dhabi, and those farcical final laps. The producers of Drive to Survive wouldn’t have been able to believe their eyes, because even Netflix would have paused before scripting something so starkly stage-managed and incredulously unsporting.

Safety car at the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Few would have scripted what happened next

Grand Prix Photo

Of course, I’m a Lewis Hamilton fan. That’s largely why the disappointment remains so raw. My man lost the title in an unforgivable manner and frankly, it’s no wonder he hasn’t spoken publicly since.

So, would it now be different had he won? Well, yes – because the regulations as laid out when the safety car departed on lap 53 would have been correctly followed, and we fans wouldn’t feel so cheated.

OK, but, if the race had been red-flagged, and restarted, and Max won the race and title? I’d still have been disappointed – but wouldn’t feel as passionately as I do now. 2022 would be a new season I’d be looking forward to; 2021’s best driver would’ve won, fair and square.

From the archive

To be clear, Max fans, it’s not that I begrudge him the title. Sure, I have issues with his park-it-on-the-apex unraceability, but his sheer speed in 2021 was breathtaking. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more electrified car than the RB16 in his hands during qualifying for Saudi Arabia. It’s one of the greatest laps in modern times, despite him not finishing it. He was jaw-dropping last year.

But purists will surely be disappointed by the fashion in which he clinched the title. To lean on the FIA’s own phrasing, there’s the risk history may mark this as a tarnished title, when it could so easily have been an unqualified classic. It’s this that I begrudge.

What hasn’t helped is the FIA’s suggestion that it’s our fault, for our “significant misunderstanding” of what was going on. The FIA is right to say the matter is “tarnishing the image of the championship” but it wasn’t fans, nor Formula 1 teams and drivers, that caused it. We understood quite clearly what we saw.

Max Verstappen overtakes Lewis Hamilton in the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

The championship-deciding pass. But who misunderstood the situation?

Joe Portlock/F1 via Getty Images

For others, the final straw with F1 came earlier; the track limits melodrama, the seemingly ‘heads or tails’ handout of penalties after on-track incidents, the farce that was Spa – even further back, to Ferrari’s secret engine deal and the assumption we’re all meant to just pretend nothing happened.

Whenever it came, it all smacks of die-hard race fans not being taken seriously in the quest for the spectacle.

In my tweet, I asked the FIA how it was going to resolve things, and get me to turn on for 2022. Perhaps encouragingly, the organisation has promised to study things and delivery “meaningful feedback and conclusions” before the 2022 season begins.

I, and it seems many thousands of others, await this with interest. As does Mercedes, which is why it dropped its appeal into the Abi Dhabi debacle (With Toto Wolff promising to hold the FIA “accountable”). This should give me hope we may yet see something meaningful, that all this sporting anguish may yet be resolved. But I admit I’m not holding my breath.

We want to love F1 again; we secretly still want to follow 2022 with relish. But, right now, it’s all still too raw. We give so much time and emotion into F1, and this has been shattered. Can we risk investing such passion again?

Abu Dhabi remains a sore spot that must be treated. We want assurance the brilliant thrills and spills our sport can deliver will be beyond reproach. But we also want evidence we’ll be listened to. We want to be taken seriously, not dismissed, or told the fault is ours, not yours.

Until then, F1, sorry, but I’m out.