The safety car regulations that Michael Masi ignored to 'go racing' at the end of Abu Dhabi GP

F1

An unconventional safety car procedure, which diverted from F1's sporting regulations added a further twist to the drama of the 2021 season, helping Max Verstappen to take the title

Safety car leads Lewis Hamilton in the 2021 Abu Dhabi GP

The safety car call ultimately deposed Hamilton from his championship-winning position

Lars Baron/Getty Images

Mercedes has lost its protest against the the final controversy of the Formula 1 season, which set up a title battle between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton on the last lap of the last race of the season.

It followed an unprecedented decision by race director, Michael Masi to speed up the safety car procedure in order to squeeze in a final lap of racing rather than see Hamilton crowned champion from behind the Aston Martin safety car.

Masi allowed some lapped cars to unlap themselves, then brought the safety car in at the end of the same lap. It delivered a thrilling finale but also diverted from the procedure set out in article 48.12 of F1’s sporting regulations, which was behind Mercedes’ protest.

This article lists the sequence of events that lead up to a race restart after a safety car, and states that “any cars that have been lapped by the leader will be required to pass the cars on the lead lap and the safety car” — with our emphasis.

It goes on to say that the safety car would normally circulate for a full lap, once all unlapped cars have passed it, stating: “Once the last lapped car has passed the leader the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap.”

But with millions watching the action from around the world, Masi decided to speed up the procedure for one final battle between Hamilton, who was on worn, hard tyres, and Verstappen, who had been able to fit fresh soft tyres without fear of losing position on track — an option unavailable to Hamilton.

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

Soft tyres helped Verstappen snatch lead on the final lap

Joe Portlock/F1 via Getty Images

Initially teams were told that lapped cars would be unable to unlap themselves, which would leave five lapped cars between Verstappen and Hamilton. It prompted Red Bull team principal Christian Horner to jump on the radio to Masi.

“Why aren’t we getting these lapped cars out of the way?” asked Horner. Masi responded that he was more concerned with clearing Latifi’s car. “We only need one racing lap,” said Horner.

On lap 57, cars were told that they could unlap themselves but, almost simultaneously, the lights on the safety car went out, indicating that it would be in at the end of the lap. It only gave time for the cars between Hamilton and Verstappen to go past.

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“Michael, this isn’t right,” complained Mercedes team principal over the radio. His fears were realised as Verstappen took the lead and was crowned champion.

“It’s called a motor race,” said Masi when Wolff complained again. “We went car racing.”

Mercedes appealed, complaining that the regulations had not been followed. Masi gave evidence to the stewards, saying that the purpose of Article 48.12 was to remove lapped cars that would interfere with the leaders — in this case Hamilton and Verstappen.

He also said that teams had agreed that it was “highly desirable for the race to end in a ‘green’ condition (i.e. not under a safety car).”

Stewards dismissed Mercedes’ complaint after finding other areas of regulation that also applied, in addition to Article 48.12.

The first was Article 15.3, which allows the race director to control the use of the safety car — including its deployment and withdrawal, said the stewards.

The second was article 48.13, which sets out that the ‘safety car in this lap’ message is the signal that it will enter the pit lane at the end of that lap.

Stewards found that this overrode Article 48.12, in relation to the safety car returning to the pits at the end of the following lap.

Mercedes has announced its intention to appeal the decision.

The safety car procedure is part of F1’s sporting regulations, and has a defined sequence. Parts of this are set out in article 48.12 and 48.13.

Article 48.12

“If the clerk of the course considers it safe to do so, and the message ‘lapped cars may now overtake’ has been sent to all competitors via the official messaging system, any cars that have been lapped by the leader will be required to pass the cars on the lead lap and the safety car.

“This will only apply to cars that were lapped at the time they crossed the line at the end of the lap during which they crossed the first safety car line for the second time after the safety car was deployed.

“Having overtaken the cars on the lead lap and the safety car these cars should then proceed around the track at an appropriate speed, without overtaking, and make every effort to take up position at the back of the line of cars behind the safety car.

“Whilst they are overtaking, and in order to ensure this may be carried out safely, the cars on the lead lap must always stay on the racing line unless deviating from it is unavoidable. Unless the clerk of the course considers the presence of the safety car is still necessary, once the last lapped car has passed the leader the safety car will return to the pits at the end of the following lap.”

Article 48.13 (extract)

“When the clerk of the course decides it is safe to call in the safety car the message ‘safety car in this lap’ will be sent to all competitors via the official messaging system and the car’s orange lights will be extinguished. This will be the signal to the competitors and drivers that it will be entering the pit lane at the end of that lap.”